There are two main gift-giving seasons in Japan. One is at midsummer, and the other is at year end. Both of them drove me a little crazy. Gift-giving in Japan is so fraught with custom and expectation that it can be like a land-mine for foreigners. My experience brought me to the point where I am seriously nervous about receiving gifts at all, even today.
|Notice that she's carrying the package in|
her left hand.
Since both midsummer gift season (o-chūgen お中元) and year-en gift season (oseibō お歳暮) work the same way, I'll explain both at the same time. Midsummer gifts are given on July 15 in the Kanto area (Eastern Japan, including Tokyo, Kamakura, and Yokohama), and on August 15 in the Kansai region (Western Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe). Year-end gifts are given on or around December 20. If you choose to give only one gift per year, it is given at year end.
|You always carry packages this way when you are|
wearing a kimono.
Midsummer and year-end gifts are given to doctors, teachers, your boss, certain co-workers, clients, and anyone else that you feel (or "should feel") gratitude towards. One lady told me that many doctors in Japan have one whole room in their home where they store presents like these, because they get so many. I could well believe it.
|Two muskmelons, ¥10,000, about $95.00|
|Student giving teacher a monetary gift|
In English, we often say, "It's the thought that counts," but that's not necessarily true in Japan. The value of the gift is important, too. The value of midsummer and year-end gifts in Japan is supposed to be in proportion to the "debt" of gratitude you feel you (should) owe, as well as to the importance of the relationship in your life. Gifts are generally priced anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000 yen, but the average gift costs about 3,000 yen. (At today's exchange rate, ¥2,000 is just over $19 and ¥100,000 is just over $950. ¥3000 would be a little under $30. Obviously, if there's a doctor who has saved your life, you're going to give him as expensive a gift as you can afford. A business client whom you wish to impress would also get a fairly pricy gift. During my time in Japan, I often got gifts ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 yen, but then, back then, the economy was booming. Things are a little different now, with Japan's economy still wallowing in a long-term slump.
|I particularly appreciated gifts such as dried mushrooms and fruit.|
What I got a lot of, though, was fancy soap. I had so many bars
of soap that I never had to buy any of my own, ever.
|This noshigami is for a midsummer gift, from someone named Yamamoto.|
|Noshi for gifts|
The strings for mizuhiki are made of paper treated with a watery paste so that they will harden into a cord. (The word mizu means "water.") A dye is added to the paste to give the cords color. Gold and silver cord is used for a high-class or quality event. Red and white signifies a happy, good-luck event. Black and white cord are used for funerals and burial ceremonies. The colored cord is always tied so it is on the right and the white or silver is on the left.
Loops are good luck symbols in Japan, because they are round, smooth, and come "full circle." Cylindrical objects are bound with mizuhiki with one loop. Flat packages use mizuhiki with two loops. Wedding gifts typically have two or more loops. For funerals, the loops are cut because there is nothing lucky about death.
When you present a gift, you always tell the recipient that you are going to give them a gift. (Japanese people hate surprises.) It's traditionally considered "modest" to tell the person that the gift isn't much. A Japanese will give you an expensive and ostentatious gift, while saying, "Tsumaranai mono desu ga...," which is translated as, "This is just a trifle."
It's customary to refuse a gift a couple of times ("Oh, you shouldn't have...") but then accept with thanks. The giver always gives the gift with both hands. This is extremely important in Asia, even now. The receiver always receives with both hands, as well. Handing something to someone with one hand (even a business card) is considered inexcusably rude.
|Giving a gift while sitting on a tatami mat|
|Gift tied up in a traditional furoshiki |
The part about midsummer and year-end gifts that drove me crazy was trying to figure out how much I should spend based not so much on what I thought of the relationship, but what they thought, or what their expectation was. As you may know if you have interacted for any length of time in a foreign culture, violating people's expectations is dicey business.
The other thing that unnerved me was when I would get a particularly expensive or ostentatious gift from someone when it wasn't strictly warranted, which meant only one thing: they were planning to ask me for a favor soon, and they never seemed to forget this. There was always a favor asked, and it was always inconvenient for me to grant it, which is why they gave me such a grandiose gift in the first place. This happened so many times that I am now extremely sensitive to gifts given "for no reason" or gifts that seem over and above the norm.
Until the 1990s, gift-giving was still a huge part of the Japanese culture, but nowadays, it appears from checking around the web that oseibō gifts are no longer considered obligatory. I hear that many Japanese under the age of 50 have never given or received an oseibō gift in their lives. The younger set, especially in urban areas, seem to think that this is a custom that their parents do, but that it doesn't apply to their generation, or they think that their relatives in the country do this, but the citified folk don't. It's true that the obligation part has begun to seem rather burdensome, and even 40 years ago, individuals used to complain a bit. ("Just between you and me...")
|Furoshiki wrapping cloth tied "butterfly style"|
As well, technology has changed gift-giving customs. Many people now order online from their computers or cell phones, and leave the delivery to the store. It's no longer the thing to buy gifts in person, have them wrapped traditionally, then take them home and tie them up in a furoshiki (traditional carrying cloth), dress up in your best clothes (preferably kimono) and hand-deliver the gifts.
There are other times when gifts are given in Japan, but I will leave these for another post. :-)