Gift-giving in Japan
Engaging thoughtfully in gift-giving is important in Japanese culture
As a child, I had heard tales of Hudson Taylor “going native” by wearing Chinese clothes and even a pigtail. That brings up an important question: how much should we as missionaries comply with the customs and traditions of the country to which God has called us?
In Japan, the custom of gift-giving is a big deal. For people from other cultures, though, it can be rather daunting and perhaps seem unimportant. In fact, perhaps because they really didn’t understand its significance, my parents said they wouldn’t be a part of gift-giving in Japan. They said it was just a vicious circle; if you give a gift to someone who gave something to you, they will give you a gift in return—a never-ending situation. So they received gifts but never gave anything back. That didn’t sit well with me.
Obligation or joy?
It may seem Japanese people love to give gifts. But for them, it is more often an obligation than a joy. As an important custom, though, missionaries in Japan should seek to understand gift-giving and consider how to thoughtfully practice it.
That may mean that we don’t practice gift-giving to the extent many Japanese people do. It is said that the average Japanese businessman spends over US$2,000 a year on gifts!1 That may be more than we can afford. But we should at least know when gifts are appropriate, how to give them and how to receive them.
Types of gifts
The main type of gift is omiyage (お土産), often translated as “souvenir.” But omiyage is much more than the normal souvenir. It is given when you go to someone’s home, whether to have a meal or just for a visit. If you are invited for a meal, a food gift is suitable. It doesn’t have to be expensive nor does it have to be fancy. But Japanese are brand-conscious, so if you buy it at a department store or a locally-known store, bring it wrapped (i.e. don’t wrap it yourself) and in the bag from that store. That adds to the value.
Another type of omiyage is one you buy when returning from a trip. If you go to your home country, a small memento from that country is fine. When Japanese people go on trips overseas, they often receive senbetsu (餞別), a send-off gift. It’s important to note that if you receive senbetsu, you are supposed to bring back a souvenir, called okaeshi (お返し, a return gift). As a result, many Japanese people don’t even tell those in their office that they are going overseas. That way, when they come back, they can give some small trinket to their colleagues and everyone is happy. The proper okaeshi for senbetsu, though, should be about half the cost of what was given.
I used to take Japanese people on tours of the Pacific Northwest and we always stopped at a shopping mall the day before the group returned to Japan. One time, after three hours of shopping, I jokingly said to one young lady, “You didn’t spend US$1,000, did you?” To which she replied, “No, I only spent $800.” I was surprised! It seems she had tried not to receive senbetsu as she didn’t want to buy okaeshi. But she had to get permission from her boss to go on the trip and word got out that she was going to America. The suitcases of people returning to Japan are often filled with omiyage or okaeshi.
Ochūgen and oseibo
Other important gifts are ochūgen (お中元) and oseibo (お歳暮). Ochūgen is a mid-year gift, normally given between July 1 and 15. Oseibo is an end-of-the-year gift. Both are given to people to whom you are indebted in some way. That would include doctors (though only those in a private practice), coworkers, managers, parents, relatives, matchmakers, and teachers.2 It’s easiest to buy a gift at a local store and have them send it directly to those people. Yes, your local supermarket, convenience store and department store will have items or a catalog of items you can send. But it is also fine to deliver it by hand. For example, we (in the name of our church) give a gift to the orthopedist next door because he allows us to use his parking lot on Sundays and evenings. Because these gifts are for services rendered, there is no okaeshi. Both of these gifts should come with a noshi, a special paper with the name of the sender.
Other gift-giving occasions
There are many other occasions when gifts are required. Gifts of money are to be given at weddings, funerals, and memorials. Odd numbers are auspicious in Japan, so most Japanese are careful not to put an even number of bills in their envelope. My daughter is at the age where many of her friends and classmates are getting married. She often puts ¥20,000 in her envelope. She puts in one ¥10,000 bill and two ¥5,000 bills—to make it three bills. On these occasions, it is normal for okaeshi to be given (sometimes, especially for weddings, you will be given a catalog with various items listed—all at a certain price. This allows for each person to get something they really want).
Giving and receiving gifts
The proper way to give and receive a gift is with both hands. The one-handed approach means you are looking down on the other person. And if you are giving a gift in person, you should say something humble like “This is not much of a gift.” In this society, it is common to praise what others do and denigrate what you do. When receiving a gift, it is polite to refuse it at least once (often two refusals is normal) and then humbly accept it. It is not polite in Japan to open a gift you receive in front of the giver, unless you ask them first. Even then, it is rarely done, so the giver will often say “No.”
Japanese keep long accounts (at least compared to my experience in the West), so the next time you meet someone who gave you a gift or did something for you (even a year before), you should thank them for “the other day.” That will help keep your relationship on a good level.
There are many websites that you can consult if you don’t know what to do. I found over 14 million on a recent search. You might ask someone you know, but you have to make sure that they don’t think you are asking about a gift for them. The basic rule of thumb in gift-giving in Japan is this: when in doubt, bring something. When receiving a gift, be grateful and think of how you can express this gratefulness by returning the favor.
1 Javon, “The Art of Gift Giving/Zoto,” https://www.onegreenbicycle.com/2017/01/theartgiftgiving/, January 9, 2017, (accessed July 9, 2017).
2 Mishima, Shizuko, “Oseibo and Ochugen: Learn About These Traditional Japanese Gifts,” https://www.tripsavvy.com/japanese-gift-giving-customs-1550765, August 5, 2017, (accessed August 10, 2017).