A Guide to Japanese Gift Giving Etiquette
Japan is a country well known for its gifts, but the practice of gift giving in Japan goes beyond simply commemorating special occasions. Giving and receiving gifts is also about social rank and obligation: in fact, the focus is less on the gift itself and more on the actual act of gift giving, and shows a closeness, respect and generosity between the giver and the recipient.
When I first visited Japan as a child in 1997, I was amazed at how many gifts were immediately bestowed on me. The situation was a little more unique than that of a typical holiday abroad: my father, a British theater director, was directing a stage production of ‘The Woman in Black’ in Tokyo, and thus was the man in charge. His cast and crew felt it respectful and necessary to give his wife and daughter presents – though as I was just eight years old, I didn’t understand the unspoken rules of gift giving in Japan!
Japanese Gift Giving Traditions
How to Present a Gift
If you are giving a gift to someone, offer it with both hands – much like you would with a business card (also an etiquette-influenced action in Japanese culture). The aim is to appear modest when presenting a gift.
If you’re giving multiple gifts, consider the expense allocated to each recipient. For instance, a gift for your boss should be more expensive than a gift given to your co-worker.
A gift should always be wrapped in some capacity. If not with decorative paper, then the gift should at least be placed in a nice bag. Traditional Japanese wrapping paper, known as furoshiki, has a history that dates back to the Nara period: it’s made from patterned fabric and is a beautiful gift in its own right.
How to Receive a Gift
It’s a customary act of modesty and politeness in Japan to refuse to take the gift at first – once, twice, possibly even three times – before eventually accepting. Of course, the refusal itself should be polite too! When you do accept the gift, you should do so with both hands as a sign of respect, and say thank you (arigatou gozaimasu).
Other aspects of Japanese gift-giving and receiving etiquette include:
- Avoiding giving gifts in sets of four. The Japanese word for four sounds the same as the word for ‘death’ so it’s considered unlucky
- It’s lucky to give gifts in pairs, however, as well as in sets of eight and three
- Don’t open the gift in front of other people. This should be done in private once you’ve left the event
- Avoid the color red (it’s the color used for funerals)
- The color green is always a good choice, as it symbolizes good luck
When to Give Gifts
Any special occasion can be marked with gift giving – like birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. There are also seasonal times of year when gifts are customarily given, like Valentine's Day and Christmas. But in Japan there are also two points in the annual calendar that are marked with exchanges of gifts, known as ochugen and oseibo.
Ochugen - a summer gift
Ochugen is a summer gift-giving tradition derived from the Taoist lunar calendar, taking place from the 1st July until the 15th. At this time, you both give and receive gifts with the people you’re close to and interact with regularly. The gifts are usually from a younger person to an older - or rather, someone who’s of a higher rank than you. This is most likely to be parents, teachers, or your boss at work, but it might also be friends and relatives too.
Ochugen is about gratitude, and historically used to be an offering to the ancestors, so ochugen gifts tend to mimic this. Gifts could be a type of food or drink, usually something that can be enjoyed at a chilled temperature due to the time of year!
Oseibo - a winter gift
Oseibo takes place in the winter, from late November to 20th December. The word ‘seibo’(歳暮) means ‘end of the year’, with the additional ‘o’ indicating additional politeness. Like the summer tradition six months earlier, Oseibo is also about showing gratitude, and again involves some kind of consumable gift - this could be food, snacks, beer or wine, or something you use in the home, like candles, soap, or toiletries.
For both oseibo and ochugen, there are no hard and fast rules about what ‘must’ be gifted – and they don’t have to be particularly expensive either, as it’s more about appreciation. However, there are some suggestions of gifts that should be avoided. This includes items that aren’t consumable, a gift of knives (as it can symbolize the ending of a relationship), and items that relate to ‘work’ like stationery.
Okaeshi - a thank you gift
If you receive gifts from people in your age group or equals (co-workers, siblings) then it’s polite to either send a letter of thanks, or give them something in exchange. This part of Japanese gift-giving etiquette also has its own name: okaeshi. These thank you gifts are expected to be worth around half the value of the original gift, and typically include alcohol, sweets, or small household related items.
Omiyage - a local product gift
Omiyage is an important part of gift-giving culture for those who like to travel. Translated, the word means ‘local product’, and involves bringing back locally purchased items and souvenirs for your friends and family from the places you’ve visited. This is partly why localized items are so popular in Japan – uniquely flavored KitKats for every Japanese prefecture, for instance.
Omiyage is not exactly the same as a typical souvenir though. Omiyage is solely bought for others, it’s usually a type of food, and it’s something your Japanese friends and family are expecting to receive on your return!
At Japanese weddings it’s customary to give money, known as goshugi, to the bride and groom. This is presented in an envelope – the shugi bukuro – which is opened immediately, the money counted, and the name of the giver written down.
Any additional wedding gift you give is influenced by the relationship you have with the person getting married, and what status they are in comparison to you.
Christmas wasn’t historically celebrated in Japan, although it’s become much more popular since the 1900s began, and is now a major holiday. Couples will usually exchange gifts - and most likely families with younger children - but it’s not a gift giving bonanza like in the US.
Valentine’s Day is another big gift giving occasion in Japan. Chocolate is a traditional gift to give, but there are different types depending on the recipient: giri choco is given platonically, whereas honmei choco is for a romantic partner and are often homemade rather than store bought.
Where to Find Japanese Gifts
If all these guidelines for gift giving are a little overwhelming, never fear: the upside to a cultural gift-giving etiquette is that the country is more than prepared to accommodate it. Stores sell gift sets throughout the year, making all occasions easy to shop for.
Why not commemorate your friends and family’s next special occasion with a Japanese subscription box from Bokksu? You could check out our selection of beautiful handcrafted homeware too – a perfect gift for oseibo or ochugen!