Gift-Giving in Japan

bannerFor the course Economic Anthropology last year, I wrote a paper on the relation between the Japanese gift culture and the capitalist market system. In retrospect, I believe this topic might interest my readers, so I have selected and adapted the most informative bits on gift-giving in Japan (and how much money you should spend on it) to share with you on Nippaku. Enjoy! 

Just as he was leaving the morning room he had turned around and said: “When is the wedding? I would like to give a present, but since I have no money, I am afraid I can’t.” – in Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Similar to other gift traditions all over the world, wedding presents make up for an important part of Japanese gift culture, encompassing not only a substantial amount of money but also requiring specific knowledge and skills on how, when and to whom one should present a wedding gift. This happens usually in the form of cash and is at least 10,000 Yen (around 80 euros – I will use Euro as the currency of reference from now on). Close family members are expected to give up to tenfold that amount. The character in Natsume’s novel making the quote stated above, a poor student, is clearly not able to afford an appropriate wedding gift and can, therefore, not comply with social norms. Katherine Rupp (2003), who describes in great detail the complexity of gift-giving in Japan based on her fieldwork observations, immediately points out the economic consequences of this abundant gift culture: “people invest substantial amounts of money in gift-giving. (…) Gift-giving is very important, not only at personal and household levels but on national and macroeconomics level as well. For example, ochūgen and oseibo, summer and winter gifts, provide 60 percent of annual profits of most Tokyo department stores” (p. 1).

traditional gift

traditional gift wrapping – madameriri

The economic burden of compulsory gift-giving is felt by many Japanese people and has recently come to complement an erosion of ‘traditional’ gift giving among the younger generation(s). This makes it all the more remarkable that never before, so much money was spent on gifts: The report by the Yano Research Institute (2016) on Japan’s domestic gift market mentions increased retail sales of almost 73 billion Euro in 2015, 102% of gift sales in the previous year. The report further points out that less formal gifts are purchased, and more commodities circulate in the form of casual gifts. Thus, instead of spending money on presents that are linked with obligatory gift-giving, the Japanese now prefer buying presents for their loved ones, less restrained by social conventions.

From ancient times, Japan has known a formal gift-giving culture based on  customs and traditions with a focus on ceremonial occasions, but against the social background of a decreasing birthrate, an aging population, the nuclearization of the family, and a weakening of neighborhood and kinship ties, compulsory and formal gifts such as chugen and seibo, wedding presents, ceremonial gifts, return gifts for funeral offerings and Buddhist memorial services, are decreasing. Yet, at the same time, giving gifts as an expression of gratitude, affection, respect and love towards people one is close to such as one’s parents, children and friends, is playing a big role and has become a way to facilitate communication. Regardless of the formality of the present, the existence of ‘casual gifts’, adapted to recent times, can also be observed. It is believed that these will become a factor of market growth in the near future. (my own translation – Yano Research Institute, 2016: 2)

Save for the trending ‘casual gifts’, this so-called ‘formal gift-giving culture’ is related to a rigorous wrapping etiquette, to such a degree that the packaging divulges the occasion. Hence, the content becomes subordinate to the presentation and the act of giving in se – in such a degree that in some, often business-related cases, presents are never opened and passed onto others in a continuous chain of gift-giving. Especially within the industry, business meetings and lucrative transactions go hand in hand with a whole series of gifts and ‘donations’, balancing on the verge of what Westerners would consider as bribery. Physicians usually receive a ‘token of appreciation’ (expensive gifts or a substantial amount of cash) in advance of medical procedures and during winter or summer gift season, challenging the physician with the fact that “the space between a giver’s gratitude and a receiver’s obligation can be narrow and murky” since accepting could unintentionally lead to biased treatment of the patient in question (Takayama, 2001: 139). Again, it should not surprise that all these donations generate enormous economic profit, confirming that “not only do individual Japanese people spend a lot of time, worry, and money on gift-giving, but [that] gift-giving is also a crucial part of the overall workings of the macro-economy” (Rupp, 2003: 2). Below, an overview will be provided of Japanese gift-giving customs and their (economic) significance in today’s society.

matcha baumkuchen

This matcha baumkuchen won first prize for best Japanese gift last year.


Writing my bachelor paper on Japan’s wrapping culture, I familiarized myself somewhat with the complicated etiquette surrounding gift-giving on several occasions, but putting it in practice during my one-year stay there turned out to be a different matter. As an exchange student, I quickly realized how little I had to be concerned with giving adequate presents in Belgium. Luckily in Japan, foreigners, as well as children and young adolescents, are often forgiven in that respect. The wife of a Japanese composer (an elderly couple with a traditional mind-set I acquainted and whom I used to visit regularly), offered me the following explanation, while reluctantly accepting the box of Belgian chocolates I had brought her as a thank you gift for the invitation (temiyage 手土産): “young people do not have much money, so you really shouldn’t have bought that for us. You should just receive the presents from older people until you are earning enough money to treat other people”. It appears that this gift-giving obligation for the Japanese evidently involved a lot of expenses and effort. Below, I give a non-exhaustive overview of the main gift rituals currently performed in Japan and their economic consequences.

nihon no okurimono

Catalogue of Japanese presents featuring regional products of every prefecture.


Omiyage (お土産, written with the character for ‘earth’ and the character for ‘produce’, thus meaning ‘products from the land’) are souvenirs, usually local foodstuffs such as sweets and cookies that have a connection with the place visited. Every region in Japan has its own specialty (meibutsu名物). Mantell (2012) suggests that the local production of omiyage can contribute to the community’s identity and pride. Because of this link with the travel destination, homemade souvenirs are to be avoided. Upon return, omiyage are distributed among colleagues at the work place and given to family members and friends. In the research office where I had my desk while studying in Japan, foodstuffs were regularly brought in and placed on the shared table, accompanied by a note of the returned traveler offering everyone to serve themselves.

omiyage uji

Omiyage for sale in Uji.

The ‘hunt’ for souvenirs is expensive and time-consuming, certainly taking into consideration that even a one-day trip involves omiyage. As such, some people “hide travel plans from friends and neighbors so as not to have bring back presents from trips” (Rupp, 2003:1). This is especially the case when omiyage are strongly experienced as giri (義理, ‘social obligation’; Krag, 2014: 69), yet souvenirs can also express gratitude and indebtedness for ‘holding the fort’ whilst away, the strengthening of social ties, or a desire to share the travel experience (Park, 2000:86-7).

According to the Japanese government’s latest white paper on domestic tourism (2016), the Japanese population spent more than 21 billion euros on shopping alone, which surpasses the travel expenses for food and drinks (p. 251). Although it is not entirely clear how many of the purchased goods were bought as souvenirs and not for own use, Tsujimoto e.a. (2013) point out that in 2010, 72.4% of shopping expenses went to food products that were not consumed during the trip (p. 226), and 97,5% of the goods indicated as omiyage were foodstuffs, mostly sweets. It is customary to pay between 8 and 48 euros on omiyage for each person; Tsujimoto e.a. calculated an average of 47 euros in total spent on souvenirs per trip (p. 238).

Seasonal Gift-Giving

* Ochūgen and Oseibo

There are two gift-giving season in Japan, rooted in ancestral offering traditions: during summer in July (ochūgen お中元) and during winter between 13 and 20 December (oseibo お歳暮). These gifts are sent out to personal and business relations such as to superiors, clients, doctors, teachers, landlords and – in a lesser degree – family members, as an expression of gratitude for taking care of them. Again, mostly foodstuffs are given, and similar to omiyage, regional products are popular. Rupp (2003) lists, for example, watermelons, canned fruit, curry sauce, eggplants, cheese and other specialties (p. 29). Household products are frequently sent as well. Important to note is that both gift seasons coincide with the semiannual bonus many Japanese employees receive, amounting to at least two months’ salary (Lebra, 1976: 98). Hence, summer and winter gifts are heavily advertised as slightly more expensive gift sets or basket in stores all over Japan. Online and in most department stores, it is possible to have the gift delivered directly at the receiver’s doorstep, wrapping and gift card included.


Popular ochugen gifts. The site also mentions how much money should be spent based on the type of relation between giver and receiver, somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 yen – Rakuten

According to the Yano Research Institute (2016) gift report, ‘casual’ gift-giving has also pervaded the domain of seasonal gifts. As a result, the demand for presents that convey one’s feelings towards close friends and family, has increased, along with the emphasis on the act of ‘giving’ in itself (p. 2). This in contrast to the ‘courtesy’ gifts rooted in tradition that are less frequent today, especially among the younger generation. Nevertheless, due to the increased sales of ‘casual’ gifts, expenses nationwide accrued to almost 8 billion euros for ochūgen, and 6.5 billion euros for oseibo. Compared to the previous years, this is only a ‘slight’ decrease of 30 to 40 million euros. Shopkeepers tend to respond to the demand for more personal gifts by allowing customers to assemble an original gift basket instead of offering pre-packaged gift sets.

* Doll Festival and Children’s Day

hina matsuri

Full set of Japanese dolls, displayed for the Doll Festival.

Among the ‘five seasonal festivals’ (五節句 gosekku), Doll Festival (雛祭りhina matsuri), or Girls’ Festival, and Children’s Day (子供の日kodomo no hi), or Boys’ Festival, bear the most economic consequences. During the former, traditional dolls are displayed on a staircase-like structure every year. As is the custom, these dolls are purchased by the maternal grandparents (if not already in family possession) at the birth of their first female grandchild. Due to the high cost of these dolls (prices for a full set start at 680 euros and go up to more than 10,000 euros), it is not uncommon anymore that other family members chip in as well. The family of the mother is also responsible for presents such as carp banners and warrior dolls for their grandson on Boys’ festival. Yet recently, it has become normal that other relatives and friends give presents as well.

Business Gifts

Business gifts are more frequent in Japan than in Europe (Mba, 2012). Apart from seasonal gifts, omiyage and New Year cards, it is customary to exchange gifts at the end of a (first) business meeting or on formal occasions. The value of the gift mirrors the company’s hierarchy: high-ranking employees receive the most expensive items (Alston & Takei, 2005: 55). Business gifts are elaborately wrapped items that are never opened in presence of the donor. Underlying these gifts is a complex etiquette, defining how the gift should be presented, what items are to be avoided and how the gift should be received in an appropriate manner. For those who want to play it safe, department stores and high-end chains promote a series of commodities in varying price ranges as ‘ideal’ business gifts.

business gift

Business gifts on the website of Shinise Mall

Religious Offerings

Shintō ceremonies (e.g. purification of a house) involve offerings to ancestral spirits, and cash money given to the officiating priest. These offerings include sake and food such as rice, fish and vegetables (Rupp, 2003: 13). When visiting a Buddhist grave, incense and flowers are often placed on the stone. In traditional households where ancestors are daily commemorated by means of a small altar or shrine in the house, ‘unusual’ specialty food are offered first to the ancestors. The food is placed on the shrine and “when the ancestors have finished (Smith, 1974: 136)”, it is removed and eaten by the family. On Japanese New Year’s Day (oshōgatsu お正月), it is common to offer traditional food such as sake and soup with rice cakes first to the ancestors.

offering to ancestors

Offering of fruit to ancestors during obonNandaikinjo

During the religious observances of ohigan (お彼岸, equinoctial Buddhist services lasting one week in Spring and Fall) and obon (お盆 festival to honor the ancestors’ spirits, held in July or August), the Japanese return to their hometowns and visit family graves. They bring along food for ancestral offering (often luxury fruits such as melons, but also wine and sweets, depending on the culinary preference of the deceased) which is afterwards consumed during the family meal. By doing so, they are permeated by the power of the spirits (Rupp, 2003: 127). Since ancestral offerings and the dinner celebrations connected to these often involve ‘unusual’ or luxury foodstuffs, prices are evenly extravagant. People pay easily up to 100 euros for a gift melon. Incense and flowers are sold as expensive obon sets, yet there is always a choice between a wide range of prices.

‘Modern’ Forms of Gift-Giving

* Christmas Presents

Despite the fact that less than 1% of the Japanese population considers itself a Christian, Christmas is a well-celebrated occasion, albeit a non-religious version adapted to Japanese culture and society and especially among younger couples. Contrary to Belgian habits, Christmas Eve in Japan is reserved for lovers, while New Year’s Eve is spent in company of family members. In families with young children, toys are sometimes given, but never to adults (Rupp, 2003: 144). Christmas decoration, on the other hand, is widespread.

‘Imported’ celebrations such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day (cf. infra), revolve around excessive advertisements, high consumption and a (rather Western) portrayal of romanticism. It is common for a couple to go on a date to a high-end restaurant, exchange luxury goods such as jewelry, scarves and handbags for women, and watches, wallets and pens for men, and spend the night at an expensive hotel. The standard Christmas meal at home is fried chicken and a strawberry cream cake, which has to be pre-ordered months in advance due to its popularity. Note that, in contrast to traditional celebrations, food consumed on Christmas is almost never homemade and thus store-bought.


You would think this is an ad for Valentine’s presents but it’s not: these are gifts deemed appropriate for Christmas – Rakuten

The popularization of Christmas from the 1930s on, was a commercial opportunity for stores to extend sales after the oseibo boom. Papp (2016: 67-68), referencing a report by Ishii, mentions that in post-war Japan, Christmas was seen as a symbol of modernity, and hence as a shortcut to ‘happiness’, generated by industrialism and consumerism. Another point worth mentioning is that, in most cases, men pay for the whole evening and always give a present to their wives or girlfriends, while women are not ‘obligated’ to give something in return (cf. infra). This indicates a break with more traditional gift-giving customs.

* Valentine’s Day and White Day Gifts

Also introduced in post-war Japan, February 14th is a celebration that mirrors the Western tradition, but has its own Japanese interpretation. Different is that Valentine gifts are exclusively chocolate, are presented only by women, and are not solely given in a romantic way. On the contrary, only a small part of the chocolates is given to loved ones. Valentine’s Day was launched by a chocolate manufacturer and became a nationwide celebrated holiday by the 1970s (Rupp, 2003: 146). It was promoted as the only day women could express their love, and the fact that in other Valentine-celebrating countries men also gave presents, somehow got lost in translation. As a result, Valentine’s Day today is more about boosting men’s confidence than about romance. Minowa e.a. (2011: 52) speak of the “gender asymmetric nature” of the Valentine Day’s gift-giving ritual.


Although a recent and foreign gift-giving tradition, Valentine’s chocolate quickly incorporated ‘traditional’ elements such as a connection with giri, or social obligation (Davis & Ikeno, 2011): women in the workplace and at school felt obliged to give their co-workers and superiors Valentine’s chocolate in order to avoid accusations of favoritism (Buckley, 2009) and to preserve harmonious relationships. This type of chocolate, often store-bought and less expensive, is giri choko. When the gift is meant to convey a feeling of affection, it is called honmei choko (本命チョコ ‘favorite chocolate’). These chocolates are far more expensive than giri choko and in some cases homemade (DIY-kits are also sold at stores). Recently, women have started to hand out tomo choko (友チョコ‘friend chocolate’) to their female friends. This year’s Valentine’s Day generated 1.1 billion euros of revenue (3% more than last year), with most chocolate companies earning half of their annual sales in February (Japan Times, 2017). A Japanese woman spends around 80 euros on Valentine chocolate every year.

white day2

Ad for White Day candy gifts – Amazon

White Day on March 14th is the male response to Valentine’s Day and originated in the 70s as a commercial stunt by the National Confectionery Industry Association to boost sales in the month following February. Originally it was launched as Marshmallow Day, but marshmallows turned out to be an unsuccessful product and the name was changed. On this day, Valentine gifts are reciprocated in the form of white presents: white chocolate, candy, handkerchiefs, flower, cookies, jewelry and underwear (acceptable even for work relations). Rupp (2003: 149) points out that many men do not make a return gift, and in the case of giri choko, it is the wife of the Valentine’s recipient that concerns herself with providing the office women with White Day presents. These gifts are usually at least twice as high in value than the original gift, yet sales are not as high as for Valentine’s Day. As will be explained later, not returning a gift or returning twice the amount would be inappropriate in other gift-giving settings, but ‘hybridized’ holidays allow for divergence of standard norms.

* Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Presents

From the 1970s on, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as ‘imported’ holidays have been celebrated in a similar fashion as in the West. Department stores anticipate this gift-giving by putting specific items on display. In 1966, Respect for the Aged Day was introduced on 15 September, today celebrated in the third week of September. The elderly receive gifts from their relatives such as flowers, clothing and food. It has been a custom for the government to present centenarians with silver sake cups on this day, although last year it was decided to send out cheaper cups, since silver ones for the more than 65,000 centenarians proved to be too costly to manage (Japan Times, 2016).

mothers day

Results of a survey on Mother’s Day gifts in Japan, asking what they received and what presents made them most happy. Flowers are number one in both cases. – Ringbell

It is indicative that for ‘imported’ gift-giving traditions, the word purezento (プレゼント, the Japanese pronunciation of the English word ‘present’) is used rather than Japanese words for ‘gifts’ such as okurimono (贈り物). Purezento bears a more individual and western connotation and is less formal. Today in Japanese society, many people prefer to give more personalized items to close friends (the so-called ‘casualization’ of gift-giving) instead of gifts that are rooted in social obligation. For example, only sending Christmas gifts and not oseibo (Rupp, 2003: 145).

Cash Gift-Giving

* Wedding Gifts

wedding envelope

Decorated envelope for a cash wedding gift – Rakuten

As was touched upon in the introduction of this blog post, wedding gifts mainly consist out of money. The decorated envelopes (shūgi-bukuro 祝儀袋) with cash – new bills – are handed over at the reception desk, specifying whether it is for the groom or for the bride, or are delivered at home in case the giving party is not invited to the wedding or cannot attend. The amount of money should mirror the relationship with the recipients, as well as the wealth status of the donor. College friends and neighbors, for example, give around 160 euros, family members usually give more. Special envelopes with tied cords in auspicious colors are purchased for the occasion. Since a considerable amount of gift money as compensation for costs can be expected, “this custom (…) has led to more and more extravagant receptions, all to the delight of the companies that sell wedding packages and the luxury hotels where such receptions are often held” (Mak, 1998: 30). Indeed, the Japanese wedding industry, including the many return gifts that are sent to all guests (cf. infra) is worth 20.1 billion euros today (Yano Research Institute, 2017).

* Funeral Gifts


envelope for ‘incense money’ – Amazon

‘Incense money’ (香典kōden), ranging between 24 euros and 800 euros per person,  is given at funerals or wakes in special envelopes (Suzuki, 2000: 84). In contrast to the crisp new bills presented at a wedding, incense money should be old. Again, the amount of money is dictated by relationship and status. For more traditional wedding gifts as well as funeral gifts, the gender of the recipient or deceased plays a role: less money is given in the case of a woman. Mourners additionally send white flowers with their name attached. The incense money covers only around half of the funeral costs, since return gifts are made to every donor. Annually, roughly 2.7 billion Euro is spent on ceremonial gifts at funeral services (Karan & Gilbreath, 2005: 176).

Symbolic gifts

Small traditional gifts often have a symbolic meaning. It is customary, for instance, to present new neighbors with long, thin noodles since these symbolize longevity. Boxes with noodles especially for such occasions are sold at department stores and are differently wrapped and priced than noodles purchased for own consumption. Noodles in their plastic supermarket wrapping would also be inappropriate for ochūgen, for example. As a betrothal gift, a set of store-bought items that symbolize good luck, longevity and good health, often accompany an envelope with around 8000 euros from the groom’s family – or around three times his monthly salary (Rupp, 2003: 86-88).


Lucky kid just received her New Year’s money – K-pedia

New Year cards (年賀状nengajō) in auspicious colors depicting the Zodiac sign of the new year are sent out to relatives, friends and teachers but also to co-workers and business connections. New Year’s presents from parents to children (otoshidama お年玉), on the other hand, is a sum of money and must be given in a special envelope. It may appear that gift-giving in Japan always calls for an occasion, but susowake (すそ分け‘dividing the edge’) is one type of gift purchased simply because the other might like or need it, and has no symbolic meaning attached. Hence, there is no social obligation to return (Rupp, 2003: 29).

Return gifts

The returning of gifts is an essential but fairly more complex part of the Japanese gift-giving tradition. Since gift-giving is an act of giri, and since giri requires reciprocation, a gift naturally calls for a return gift. The moral obligation to give, to receive, and to return gifts is as much a part of traditional Japan as it is of the archaic societies with which Marcel Mauss (1954) concerned himself in his famous essay on the gift. (Lebra & Lebra, 1986: 162)

return gifts

Some popular return gifts – Kinogift

Technically, every gift should be returned with a counter-gift of half its value. Returns in cash are inappropriate, even if the original gift was money (Rupp, 2003: 192). How much a gift costs, can be estimated from the wrapping that has the name of the shop on it where it was purchased. Some high-end department stores are famous for carrying expensive gift items, and often where a gift comes from tells more about its value than the actual contents. Traditionally, gift-giving is the task of the wife and she, herself purchasing gifts frequently, has gained the knowledge to estimate its value and reciprocate in a fitting manner. To make things easier, department stores stick code tags on gifts that tell you its worth. It might be surprising that today as well, Japanese women are the ones responsible for the year-around exchange of gifts,  but seeing as how Japanese gender norms are still solidly entrenched in contemporary society – distinctly more so than in the West – gift-giving continue to be a woman’s job. Rupp, too, describes some situations in which wives, never husbands, were blamed for an ill-chosen gift.


Cute “car money” envelopes – Creema

At weddings and funerals, attendees and those who sent money in advance receive a bag full of return gifts. For weddings these include auspicious food, long-lasting objects, souvenirs of the happy event and sometimes an envelope with money that covers the transportation cost for people who come from far away. Additionally, newly weds spent a lot of time and money during their honeymoon gathering more return gifts. For funerals, traditionally salt, sake, sugar, objects made of thread and other items for purification are bagged. Although estimated to be half of the value of the cash gift, some people end up receiving more than they have given. In some regions, return gifts for incense money are only reciprocated after a certain period of time, and are calculated to match half of the value of the presented cash.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions: return gifts for birth presents are only half to one-third the value of the initial gift. Matchmakers (the couple through which the wedding was arranged) are lavished with more return gifts and money than any other person. White Day, serving as a reciprocity opportunity, prescribes that men, if they do give something, return gifts of at least twofold the Valentine gift’s cost. Rupp (2003: 150) points out that this reaffirms men as the superior party in their relationship with women. In fact, all ‘imported’ holidays have to be seen outside the framework of traditional gift-giving and return gifts. Christmas gifts, for example, are not reciprocated.

This was a short overview of the most common types of gift-giving in Japan. I think we can conclude that the Japanese give a lot of presents on many occasions and that a lot of money is spent in the process. Yet, it strengthens relationships and is a crucial part of Japan’s social landscape.

References here

History Repeats Itself: The Deflation Story

banner-deflationEurope has an economic problem. Today on the news I heard that prices in Belgium are not likely to raise. A good thing, you might think, but a little bit of inflation (sustained increase of the general price level) is actually a feature of a healthy economy. In Germany and Spain as well consumer prices fell and provoked a fear of deflation (decrease in the general price level). At first lower prices may seem great for the consumer, but eventually people will delay their purchases because things keep getting cheaper. In the end, deflation causes poor economic growth. And worse, deflation may result in a deflationary spiral (decreases in prices -> lower production -> lower wages and demand -> further decreases in price)…

…which is actually the case in Japan since the latter half of the 1990s. This chronic deflation is presumably caused by a collapse in the stock and real estate market (“burst of the bubble economy”), unfavorable demographics, the inclination of Japanese people to save their money, import of cheap Chinese materials and a tight monetary policy. The Japanese economy stagnated and real GDP growth average only reached 0.8% between 1993 and 2012.

deflation-japan-USSince 2012, prime minister Abe Shinzō has been trying to put an end to this longstanding issue. The so-called “Abenomics” focuses on three arrows: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. The Bank of Japan set a target of 2 percent inflation. By the end of 2013, the long period of deflation was declared over. The first two arrows have been put successfully in action, although many economists question the efforts in structural reforms, essential to turn the entire economic policy of Abenomics into a long-term solution.

The European Central Bank is now working on a quantitative easing program, more specifically buying bonds from the banks to increase flows of credit. This story is to be continued, for sure…

References and Further Reading

“Chronic Deflation in Japan”

“Japan Deflation to End” – Forbes

Abenomics: Preliminary Analysis and Outlook

Abenomics Structural Reform Problem – The Diplomat

– The eurozone needs an alternative solution to its economic woes – The Guardian

Japan Week at KU Leuven

Japan WeekIt is Japan Week at KU Leuven, my university, for the fourth time! A symposium with lectures is held, as well as workshops, documentaries and presentations of Japanese (from Kansai University) and Belgian students. I attended the first day of lectures that dealt with the theme: “Japanese Media Culture: between Globalization and the Galapagos Syndrome”. Very diversified topics were introduced by speakers from different specializations. Especially (digitalized) Japanese pop culture and its appeal throughout the world was discussed. I will briefly review three of these lectures.


First of all, KU Leuven professor Dimitri Vanoverbeke, who teaches us Politics and Economics of Japan, talked about “Japanese Studies in Belgium in the 21st Century: Framing the Impact of Popular Culture”. It is hardly known, but Japanese Studies at KU Leuven are currently more popular than other Language and Area studies, like Chinese Studies or Slavic Studies. When I was in first year, 120 other people started Japanese Studies as well (in third year now, there are roughly 40 students left, though…). Altogether, the number of students in Japanese Studies increased from 78 (2005) to 211 (2011), recorded as the peak year. By 2010, Japanese Studies even became the third largest undergraduate section at the Faculty of Arts.

Japanese Studies has to deal with three paradigms: 1) the language and area 2) economics and politics 3) pop culture. These paradigms were not regarded as equal in the past. Since the 1980s, parallel with Japan’s “bashing” economic period, student’s interest was especially incited by Japan’s miraculous economics. Language and culture were of subordinate importance. It was of course no surprise that the number of students decreased in the 1990s, as Japan’s “passing” period announced the end of “Japan as number one”. So why still study Japanese if the Chinese economy has become more important nowadays?

Yearly enquiries point out that students’ main motivation to enroll in Japanese Studies is in many cases the Japanese pop culture. Especially in 2009, when about 75% of the students’ choice was influenced by manga, anime and Jpop (music). Nevertheless, Japanese pop culture is not the only reason, as the students expressed to have interest in history and economics as well. It is more like a combination of different aspects wherein Japanese pop culture forms the bridge between our daily life and the Japanese world. This tendency can also be observed in other European countries.

An example of the globalization of Japanese pop culture is the success of Japan Expo, a 3-day festival hold in Brussels. This year, around 232.000 people attended the festival, and enjoyed 125.000 m2 of stands and stages. This indicates that Japanese pop culture is in fact doing very well. It is a general phenomenon in Europe, instigated by globalization.


To improve this spread of Japanese culture, professor Vanoverbeke draws attention to the importance of social sciences. KU Leuven offers services like sites, a Japanese-Dutch dictionary and projects (e.g. Let’s Manga). All of these digital devices do not only provide passive knowledge, but expect students to participate in the learning process, and stimulates an active knowledge exchange.

japanweekSchermafbeelding 2013-11-07 om 00.00.28

The next speaker was professor Naoko Mori from Kansai University with “International Circulation of Japanese Comics (Manga)”. She talked about the change in distribution routes of Japanese manga in China. In the 1990s, Japanese manga and anime grew more popular there. Its distribution was controlled mainly in big cities, what resulted in the distribution of pirated editions in the rural areas. In recent years, we see a decrease in Japanese anime broadcast, as the Chinese government wants to protect domestic animation products. There are also regulations on pirated editions, but these cannot stop the increase in illegal scanlations. As soon as one day after the Japanese release, Chinese translation can be found on the Internet.

Fan culture is booming as well in China. In the 1990s, the first Dōjinshi 同人誌 (self-published manga works) emerged. In the 2000s, comic cons were held and manga clubs were established at schools. At Beijing University in 2011, no less than 800 students were members of the manga club! In recent years, Dōjinshi has evolved into real, popular Chinese comics.

Studio Ghibli dojinshi -

Studio Ghibli dojinshi –

Professor Mori then shifted to another topic, that is the gender difference of expressions. In comics for girls (shōjo 少女), there is a complex frame. Thought bubbles are used more often, and characters look like fashion models. These features express rather feelings and topics like love, human relationships etc. Comics for boys (shōnen 少年) make more use of a flat frame and action sounds. Characters look like action stars, and therefore express motion. These manga contain themes like battle, sports etc.

Yaoi (love between men) dōjinshi mixes these things. They are written by and for girls, but are original inspired by comics for boys. According to professor Mori, yaoi indicates the spread of manga culture.

yaoi doujinshi of one piece –

I conclude this post with reviewing the lecture “Business and Government Engagement with the Anime Boom in the United-States and its Decline” of professor Michal Daliot-Bul of the university of Haifa (Israel). Since the 1960, Japanese anime shows have become very successful around the world. However, it was only since the late 1990s, these shows were also labeled as “made-in Japan”. In 2000, we observed a peak in the anime bubble, but the boom is now over. It was clear that no recuperation of investments could be gained.

The globalization of anime did not work out so well because of structural obstacles. If we compare the Japanese and the American situation (Disney, Nickelodeon), we can see that in Japan there are no conglomerates who control the whole production and distribution process. The Japanese anime industry is decentralized, most companies are independent and small-scale, and the production process is fragmented.

The importance of merchandising -

The importance of merchandising –

The Japanese tend to orient their production domestically, and shun negotiations because of their fear to encounter language and culture barriers. In the beginning (and still), Japan sold their copyrights to the USA, making use of a minimum guarantee system. Once launched abroad, the Japanese had nothing to say about it anymore. Strategies for globalization are insufficiently developed: less than 10% of all revenues of anime are collected oversees. Take Pokémon for example. It became a world-wide success, but almost nothing of the revenues went back to Japan.

There are global distribution channels (e.g. Animax), but these are all launched in the USA. Online streaming is popular, but 1) hardcore fans prefer to pay a fair amount for their anime, 2) downloading is way easier. Television has obviously been replaced by the internet.

Could the Japanese government provide better support to the globalization of Japanese anime? Strategic plans for digitization have been made, but execution of them is not really visible. In 2013, the market has changed drastically compared to 10 years ago. The government hasn’t taken this chance into account, and has overlooked a big opportunity to control media-distribution. What is missing, is a flexible, agile and proactive approach to globalization.

Dramatic Economics

Japanese drama shows must get their inspiration from somewhere. Domestic economic scandals, for example.

1. Window dressing 

A strategy used by mutual fund and portfolio managers near the year or quarter end to improve the appearance of the portfolio/fund performance before presenting it to clients or shareholders. To window dress, the fund manager will sell stocks with large losses and purchase high-flying stocks near the end of the quarter. These securities are then reported as part of the fund’s holdings. (Investopedia)

Drama case: Hanzawa Naoki

Hanzawa works at the Tokyo Chuo Bank as the head of the Loans Devisions, when he is forced by his manager to give an unsecured loan of 500 million yen to Nishi Osaka Steel. Because he is pressured to hand in the loan documents as soon as the following morning, there is no time to check the company’s accountancy carefully. Three months later, Nishi Osaka Steel goes bankrupt, and the  lent money is gone. The company had been hiding their debts with window dressing. The branch manager, who had promised to take responsibility before, puts now all the blame on Hanzawa.

Actual case: Olympus

On 8 November 2011, camera and copier maker Olympus corp. (オリンパス株式会社 Orinpasu Kabushikigaisha)  admitted having resorted to window dressing in the past. During the 1990s, at least $1.4 billion of losses were covered up using various types of window dressing. Surprising is that it took more than 20 years before it was discovered. In fact, it was brought into the light by a foreigner, the Briton Michael Woodford, who was sacked few days after becoming CEO of the company. Woodford had questioned the chairman about more than a billion dollars used as “advisory fees” to acquire some small-scale companies and firms. Advisory fees should be added up between 1% – and 2%  of the total deal. In the purchase of Gyrus, a British medical equipment firm, Olympus paid $687 million as advisory fees to unknown, firms Axes and Axam, situated on the Cayman Islands, what makes up for a third of the acquisition price. Apparently they used the fees to hide the long-standing losses of the past two centuries.

They didn't smile for long. -

They didn’t smile for long. –

Olympus’ scandal, though good for “the largest accounting fraud in Japan’s corporate history”, reminds us of the common accounting practice (tobashi 跳ばし) at the end of the bubble economy in 1990. Companies in debt transferred their bad assets or loans to dummy companies, so losses didn’t show up in the bookkeeping.

"Well yeah, we're kinda sorry for two decades of fraud..." The

“Well yeah, we’re kinda sorry for two decades of fraud…” –

Interesting as well is the suggestion of newspaper Sankei that Olympus gave the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, some pocket-money, a tidy amount of $1.5 billion. Not much is written about that on the Internet, but I suspect it revolves around sōkaiya 総会屋, what means hiring yakuza to a) disrupt the shareholder meeting or b) prevent disruption of the shareholder meeting. Companies invite the yakuza to their own meetings for option b. For example, if a shareholder questions a certain policy of the company, he is threatened by the yakuza. Or they start making trouble in order to close the meeting and avoid further questions.

2. Insider Trading and Pump and Dump

Insider trading occurs when a trade has been influenced by the privileged possession of corporate information that has not yet been made public. Because the information is not available to other investors, a person using such knowledge is trying to gain an unfair advantage over the rest of the market. (Investopedia)

Pump and dump is a form of stock manipulation that involves artificially inflating the price of an owned stock through false and misleading positive statements, in order to sell the cheaply purchased stock at a higher price. Once the operators of the scheme “dump” their overvalued shares, the price falls and investors lose their money. Stocks that are the subject of pump and dump schemes are sometimes called “chop stocks”. (Wikipedia)

Drama case: Kurosagi

The swindler-who-swindles-other-swindlers Kurosaki poses as Yamashita, and tells Shiraishi, the swindler, that he wants to buy out Skybio Industry, a small company with a lot of potential. He asks Shiraishi to sell stocks in their new company. Shiraishi hears that a lot of great companies want to buy Skybio as well, so he sees an opportunity to con Yamashita. He suggests stock manipulation by insider trading. First, when Skybio enters the market, you have to buy as much stock as possible. Next, you spread the news about the purchase. Reputation of both companies will grow, and the stock value will increase. Then, you sell the stock you bought at a high profit range. If you have made a large sum of money, you spread the rumor that  the company is not to be sold. Stock prices will immediately drop, and you can buy shares again at a cheap price.

Actual case: Recruit

The Recruit scandal is connected with insider trading and corruption. It is quite famous because it forced a cabinet to resign. Hiromasa Ezoe, chairman of Recruit, offered stocks of the subsidiary Cosmos to many politicians before the company entered the public market. When it did in 1986, share prices skyrocketed and a lot of money disappeared in the pocket of Diet members. Two years later, about 47 politicians were found guilty of insider trading or receiving special favors, among them prime minister Takeshita Noboru and former PM Nakasone Yasuhiro. Not only did the cabinet resign, it was also the end of the LDP’s continuous reign since 1955, as Hosokawa Morihiro won the elections in 1993.

Facts for Fun

– If you are more fond of Korean drama, I can recommend Midas, a drama about money and how to earn it in a most effective (and most illegal) way.


– Wikipedia and Investopedia
Skinner, Douglas J. “Japan’s ‘Window Dressing’ Hid Olympus Fraud: Douglas J. Skinner.” Bloomberg, n.d.
– “Camera-maker Olympus admits to window-dressing books.” Domain-b, n.d.
Facts and details
– Inagaki, Kana, and Phred Dvorak. “Olympus Admits to Hiding Losses.” Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2011, sec. Business.
Miyazaki Manabu

Five Facts about Japanese Politics and Economics to Fill Awkward Silent Moments Spent in Company of Japan-Ignorant People

Today’s topic is, well, like the title tells you. Just five facts I think worth mentioning. I often start monologues on random Japanese topics, or add the suitable amount of information about Japan during small talk conversations with my friends. They are used to it. And most people even ask about it when they find out what kind of special/weird/extraordinary thing I’m studying. If you sympathize with my quirky behaviour, or you took the trouble to read this far and don’t want to give up now, here we go:

Fact number 1

The Emperor of Japan is the only monarch left in the world who is still called Emperor. Moreover, current Emperor Akihito is a descendent of Japan’s first Emperor Jinmu (660 BC). Akihito is the 125th Emperor. I mean, it all stayed in the same family! China for example, had several dynasties, which means that there were different ruling families. It is amazing the Japanese succeeded in maintaining the position of the Emperor for around 25 centuries (although that was no plain sailing). Controversy about the function of the Emperor reached a peak at the end of World War II, when Hirohito declared himself to be a human being and not an incarnate God. In the Kojiki 古事記 and Nihonshoki 日本書紀, Japan’s two oldest writings, is described how the Imperial family descended from Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

First Emperor Jinmu and current Emperor Akihito

First Emperor Jinmu and current Emperor Akihito

Fact number 2

The Constitution of Japan (1947) was originally written in English, and afterwards translated into Japanese. That’s because it was written by American people during the occupation. MacArthur’s SCAP team managed to fabricate the most fundamental law in less than a week. Special thanks go to Beate Sirota Gordon, who made gender equality legal. Today, it’s still the same Constitution. Especially article 9 is a “popular” topic for discussion. Additional fact: Japan has no army, but “Self-Defense Forces”.

Constitution_of_Japan_original_copyFact number 3

Japanese prime ministers are not boring. We think immediately of “Lion Heart” Koizumi Junichirō (aka the Japanese Richard Gere). But who I want to introduce is Asō Tarō, prime minister from 2008 to 2009. He profiled himself as a passionate manga fan (which gave him the nickname Rozen Asō, from the manga Rozen Maiden)  and wanted to use Japanese pop culture to improve international relationships. He received a lot of criticism because he mispronounced or read kanji incorrectly during his speeches. As result, he gained another nickname (how studying Japanese politics can be a lot of fun!): KY Asō. Here is some explanation needed. KY is the abbreviation of Kūki Yomenai 空気読めない or “someone who can’t read te air”, meaning someone who cannot understand the situation. In Asō’s case, KY stands for Kanji Yomenai 漢字読めない, or someone who can’t read kanji (Chinese characters). So dearest reader, if you do have some issues studying kanji, don’t worry, at least you can make it as a prime minister. Extra fact: Aso has made a comeback this year as Minister of Finance in Abe’s cabinet. As no reading mistakes are reported this far, I assume furigana (the pronunciation in phonetic writing system next to the kanji) was successfully added.

Barack_Obama_&_Taro_Aso_in_the_Oval_Office_2-24-09Fact number 4

– And I tell you this because of the huge difference with Belgium, it’s more like taking some extra day off here – to go on strike in Japan is not really to go on strike. May following quote makes it all clear to you.

”In Japan,” he said, ”we have what I suppose you Americans would call ‘job inactions.’ When we strike, we put on armbands to show we are unhappy and we go into the plant and work twice as hard as usual to prove to the bosses how valuable we are.” – New York Times 

Why? Because labor unions are integrated in the company. Apart from the wages, they do not have many things to protect, because the Japanese company structure is famous for its “lifetime employment”. Nevertheless, every spring there’s a kind of traditional labor union festival held, oh wait no, it’s a strike! Shuntō 春闘, the Spring Offensive for a higher wage originated in the 1940 and  concerned negotiations  between the enterprise unions and employers. However, it lost most of its initial meaning and has become more or less a tradition.

Fact number 5

In 1980, the land price of Japan used to be around 1600 trillion yen or 4 times that of the USA  (and Japan fit 25 times in the USA). Especially Tokyo was a little bit expensive. In the late ’80, only the inside area of the Japan Railway Yamanote Line in Tokyo was worth 400 trillion, what made up for… the whole area of USA. Sony bought Columbia Pictures of Hollywood, Mitsubishi owned the Rockefeller Center for 80 percent and the Japanese Royal Palace was as much worth as California. Needless to say the American felt slightly intimidated. Why the high prices? Until 1990, Japan had created a bubble economy. That means that real estate stock prices skyrocketed due to speculation.

Tuna Economics

Few days ago I came across this quote:

[…] Japan’s Kansai region consumers are much more “price elastic” to tuna sashimi than Tokyo region consumers […]

First of all, what is price elasticity?
formulapriceelasticity Or, in how far a change in price of a product does affect the consumer’s demand of that same product. If the demand’s increase or decrease is more than proportional (Ed > 1%), the product is price elastic. If less than proportional (Ed < 1 %), we get a price inelastic product.

In case of a price change of tuna, consumers in Osaka seem to react more strongly by buying more or less tuna than consumers in Tokyo. Why is that?

Bigeye_tuna_dishI had a hard time finding some information on this topic. It seemed that tuna is enjoyed all over the country (Japanese eat 80% of the caught quantity world-wide), but it is true that tuna consumption in the east and south is considerably higher than in the west. The variation lies in the tuna species. Different regions prefer different species, due to location and cultural preferences. The author of the quote probably meant “bigeye tuna” as fish demanded by Tokyo, and “yellowfin tuna” preferred by Osaka. The biggest deal of tuna is caught in the Pacific ocean, but to my surprise, Japan also does some fishing in the Atlantic and Indian ocean. As a result, merchants in Tokyo have easier access to all kinds of tuna (The Kanto region stands for 180% of the national average). On the West coast, mackerel and white-flesh fish are very popular.

For traditional sashimi (刺身) three kinds of tuna are used: bluefin, yellow fin and tuna. Tuna_sashimiRegional preferences include colour and fat, that’s to say, red and fat fish in Tokyo and pink-coloured and less oily species in Osaka. But, preferences started to change gradually since the ’80. Next to that, tuna consumption has generally dropped by approximately 10%, in parallel with a declining number of sushi restaurants. The reason is obvious: overfishing, fortified by a lax of quota’s.

I think we can conclude that tuna, or more specifically, big eye tuna has become more price elastic in Tokyo. This is normal, because traditional preferences change continuously in times where nationwide distribution is an easy matter. Although this post may seem a bit technical and complex, I think that it is still interesting to see how cultural preferences have influence on the economy.

Facts for Fun

– There are some funny differences in food culture. In Osaka for example, it is absolutely not done to dip your meat in the sauce container, as it is shared with the other diners. In Tokyo, everyone has his own container.

– On January 7, a 222kg bluefin tuna was sold for the highest price ever of 155 million yen at the Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo. That’s three times the record of last year.


– the quote and image of formula

-Tuna sites: Facts and Details, FAO, Globefish

– pictures from Wiki Commons