The practice of gift-giving is one that’s very prominent in Japanese culture. I mean, who doesn’t like getting gifts? If I could get presents besides my birthday, I most definitely wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.
However, for the Japanese, it is more than just casually giving someone a souvenir from a recent trip or a present for an occasion. It’s an act of appreciation, a show of respect and a presentation of gratitude. This art of gift-giving dates back to the Edo period, a healthy practice that lives to this day in respect to the original intentions of the various types of gifts.
So what are the various types of gifts? In our Season 3 Episode 3 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we looked into the various types of gifts, along with a brief history of the practice as well as gift-giving etiquette to prepare you for when you do find yourself in the situation of having to give a gift in Japan.
While this article is a recap of the episode, it gives you a good amount of information to understand this practice as well. So read on to find out more!
Types of Gifts & Its History
I can only count on one hand the occasions in a year in which I receive gifts: birthday, Christmas, and a once-in-a-lifetime wedding event. Besides the standard suspects, which are also included in the whole practice of it all, Japan’s gift-giving culture has other occasions where you give gifts. And depending on the occasion, you might need to get a different type of gift.
East Asia has a long and important tradition of gift-giving. Japan is one of them. The Japanese do not take gift-giving lightly, like many other traditions in their culture. It’s a serious act that strengthens relationships and maintains ties with one another – whether it’s a personal friend or a business partner. It can also be a way to show fondness for others.
Let’s take a look at the types of gifts:
Omiyage (お土産) is a type of gift that one brings back from a trip, and most of the time it’s edible products like local snacks, Japanese sweets or alcohol. While having edibles as omiyage is more common, some do instead bring back a local handicraft that’s significant to the place they visited. The difference between omiyage and souvenir is that, generally, a souvenir can refer to a takeaway from a country whether it’s for others or yourself; an omiyage is something you solely buy for others.
Omiyage isn’t a recent practice – this act of gift-giving purchases from trips dates back to the Edo period of the 17th to 19th century. Back then, travelling wasn’t as accessible as it is now. A bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto is roughly USD200, but back in the day, this distance of travel was equivalent to today’s USD3,000!
Back in the day, this trip was usually a pilgrimage rather than a holiday. For those who were lucky enough to go on this adventure, they brought back a takeaway from their destination for those who had chipped in for the travel cost of sending them off on their merry way.
Edibles weren’t the first viable option for omiyage in those days – I mean, food preservation wasn’t all too common. By the time the traveller returned home, all their wagashi would’ve turned bad. So instead, omiyage came in forms of charms and rice wine cups as they were believed to bring blessings.
Nowadays, omiyage comes in bright boxes with individually wrapped snacks in them. Travelling to a certain area and bringing back a prized delicacy from there is kind of like sharing the experience with them.
The next type of gift is the temiyage (手土産). This one’s not a gift you give when you go travelling, but rather a gift with a purpose. The kanji for temiyage and omiyage are pretty similar – the only difference is that temiyage has the kanji for “hand” in it.
Temiyage is common to give when you’re visiting someone or a family – if you’re visiting someone’s home, it’s a sign of thanks. Generally, this type of gift conveys your thankfulness for something the person has done for you, or will do for you.
If it’s the latter, you can even add this commonly used phrase when giving it: osewa ni nari masu (お世話になるます). It loosely translates to “thank you and I feel obligated to you for burdening you.” You can use this phrase, as well as give a temiyage, to a new boss, a new landlord, movers or your homestay host if you’re travelling. It’s pretty similar to the Western culture of house gift, where you bring the host of the house a gift when you’re invited over.
The third and final type of gift is the okaeshi (お返し) gift. This word translates to “return something”. This is a type of gift you give in return as a way of saying thanks. Okaeshi gifts can go back and forth for….forever, actually, unless one puts a stop to it.
The rule to an okaeshi gift is that it has to be about half of the value of the original present. So if you got a gift that’s generally valued at $100, the okaeshi gift you give back should be about $50. If you’re stuck on what to get, alcohol is your safest bet.
While you can give okaeshi gifts any time of the year, there are two specific seasons every year specially for gift-giving: ochugen (お中元) and oseibo (お歳暮). Ochugen is set mid-year in summer, starting from the first of July to the fifteenth. Oseibo is set at the end of the year. During these two seasons, Japanese people make their rounds of giving gifts to family, friends and people who they want to show their appreciation to.
Just like other aspects of Japanese culture, there’s a proper way to go about the art of gift-giving in Japan. Gift-giving requires proper etiquette – it’s serious business here in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Firstly, whenever you’re giving as well as receiving gifts, always use both your hands as a sign of
respect. This is similar to giving and receiving name cards.
Secondly, when you are given a gift, reject it twice before finally accepting it. This is just customary. Similarly, if you’re giving one, prepare to be rejected twice and don’t take it personally.
Oh, when you do get a gift, do not open it in public.
The next etiquette is, when you’re giving one, try to give it when there’s no one else around, out of courtesy. In a business setting, or any setting, gifts are given after rather than before the encounter. If you give it before, you’re kind of implying that you’re rushing the other party.
If you’re wondering if the presentation of the gift matters, yes it does, but to a certain extent. Ribbons, bows and wrapping paper are often used, but you could also use a furoshiki (風呂敷), which is a traditional wrapping cloth. Additionally, keep in mind the colours you pick when you wrap the gift – the safest bets are pastels. Bright and flashy colours can be interpreted in negative ways – especially red, as it’s associated with funerals, and sexuality.
We always have a vocab recap in our episodes, so here’s a list of the new words we used in that episode:
Omiyage (お土産) – a takeaway, usually edible, from a trip
Wagashi (和菓子) – Japanese sweets
Sake (酒) – alcohol
Shinkansen (新幹線) – bullet train
Meibutsu (名物) – specialty from a certain area
Temiyage (手土産) – a type of gift to show thanks
Okaeshi (お返し) – a gift to return a gift
meishi (名詞) – namecard
furoshiki (風呂敷) – wrapping cloth
iro (色) – colour
Ochugen (お中元) – the first gift-giving season in the middle of summer
Oseibo (お歳暮) – the second gift-giving season at the end of the year
Which gift will you give?
It’s quite praiseworthy how seriously the Japanese take gift-giving, and how much thought is put into this practice. Now that you know the various types of gifts and the ways to go about it, will you take up this practice?