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.

TYPES OF GIFT-GIVING IN JAPAN

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.

Souvenirs

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.

ochugen

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.

xmas

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

koden

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).

otoshidama

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.

kurumadai

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