Giving gifts in Japan is not only to show someone your appreciation or gratitude, but it is also embedded deep within the culture and viewed as a formality. The gift is not as important as the ritual of giving gifts itself. Knowing this uniquely Japanese custom will help you strengthen and maintain both professional and personal relationships in Japan.
When Japanese tourists travel for leisure or business, they buy lots of omiyage or souvenirs for their friends, relatives and co-workers. This tradition dates all the way back to the Edo period, so it can be considered a historical tradition. As a foreigner in Japan, you do not need to give out little omiyage for your coworkers but if you do, they will appreciate you all that more. Besides, when your Japanese coworkers go on vacation, you will probably receive one back!
Popular souvenirs to take home are chocolates, sweets, cookies, rice crackers, fruits (dried or fresh), and alcoholic drinks. While we are at the topic of omiyage, there is also a special type of souvenir called a meibutsu, which is the speciality omiyage of a specific region, like Japanese sake and rice crackers from Niigata prefecture and apple flavored snacks and drinks from Aomori prefecture, and the list goes on. This is to show that even though you are away, you are thinking about your colleagues.
These are gifts you bring when you visit someone’s home. In western culture, we bring flowers, chocolates, or wine or all of the above. This gesture is greatly appreciated in Japan, too. Take note, though, that in Japan, this gift should not be too pricey nor cheap. Decide on a gift of food or drinks between 1000 to 5000 yen to be safe.
Ochugen and Oseibo
Traditionally, there are two gift-giving events in Japan called the Ochugen and Oseibo which is part of the giri custom or as an obligation. Ochugen gifts are given in the summer, early to mid-July, to show your appreciation for someone. Oseibo gifts are given out in December, at the end of the year, which signifies your indebtedness. Popular gifts include speciality or seasonal foods and local or luxurious alcohol brands. Not to worry, participating in Ochugen and Oseibo is not mandatory for foreigners in Japan.
When you are a guest speaker, a volunteer, or when you offer your professional services to a friend or an organization, expect a “thank you” gift from the staff. It won’t hurt if you also bring a little something to thank the organization for giving you time and opportunity to work with them. If you have invited a guest speaker, or have important personnel helping you with something, make sure you prepare a little gift of gratitude to thank them for their time as well.
8 Things to Remember, Especially in Business Settings
- You are not expected to present a gift on your first meeting, but there is an unspoken expectation that a gift will, in fact, be given, which will continue throughout your business relationship.
- Avoid giving gifts with your company logo, as it will be treated as a promotional item.
- When you present a gift to a group of people, make sure everyone is present before you give them the gift. If you would like to present a gift to an individual, make sure you do it in private.
- Both hands must be used when giving and receiving gifts. This is the proper Japanese way. No pressure!
- Once you receive the gift, act interested and ask a few questions about it. It is the polite thing to do.
- Just as a warning, avoid giving gifts with numbers 4 and 9 because, in Japan, they represent death. Give gifts in pairs, 3s, 5s, or 7s as these numbers are considered lucky.
- Please do not give the following flowers as a gift: camellias, lilies, and lotus blossoms. These flowers are used in funerals.
- Do not be surprised if the receiver rejects the gift at first. This is part of the ritual. Insist a few more times and they usually accept on the third try. As a foreigner, you are not expected to conform to this, so you may accept a present with enthusiasm.
The Japanese culture of gift-giving has no limits. Giving presents can be for personal or casual reasons, business, and even political. You can give presents but make sure that it is not so overly expensive, otherwise, you will be putting pressure on the recipient to return a gift of equal value or more. If you feel like you are making a mistake or do not know all the rules and etiquette of gift-giving, don’t sweat it, the Japanese will understand and appreciate you for your efforts.