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The Culture of Gift Giving in Japan

by Ewa Nowogorski

In any culture it is common to both give and receive gifts. And depending on the occasion, different gifts are given.

Some people love giving gifts and others love receiving gifts. Some people care about the content, others care more about the gesture. In Japan, giving gifts is often more so about showing appreciation to the receiver, or apologizing to them or congratulating them for some achievement of theirs.

What you give and how you present it highly depends on the occasion, but in general, the external appearance of the gift is always far more important than the actual content of the gift. In this article, some occasions for gift giving, as well as customs and taboos will be explained.

First, as just mentioned, it is important to present a gift nicely in some sort of packaging. You almost never give a gift unwrapped. If the gift is handed directly to the receiver, the giver shall present the gift with both hands, and the receiver shall extend both of their hands as well to receive the gift. You never give or accept gifts with only one hand.

Second, gifts are never opened by the receiver in front of the giver, to avoid embarrassment if the gift is not what the receiver wanted or accepted. This basically saves face and a potentially awkward situation for both parties. In America, however, you will find it common-especially for younger people-to open gifts in front of each other, to show appreciation for the gift-even if it is faked appreciation. Sometimes the giver will even encourage that the receiver opens the gift in front of them right after they give it.

Next, depending on the situation, it is appropriate to give different kinds of gifts. For more casual situations like souvenir gifting and just friendly greetings or shows of appreciation, food is often given. Cookies, rice crackers, fruit jellies, actual fruit, fancy chocolate, traditional wagashi, and so on are common choices for food gifts. If you have ever been to the basement levels of a department store and seen a bunch of stalls selling pretty expensive but fancily wrapped treats such as this, now you know exactly what they are for. Those stalls sell these treats for the purpose of gift giving. It’s a big culture in Japan, and these kinds of stores don’t really exist in America.

For formal situations like weddings, funerals and birthdays, giving money is more common.

Finally, another important rule of gift giving is to return the favor. This usually means giving another gift in return. When you receive a gift, depending on the situation, you usually accumulate a sort of “debt”, where you become indepted to the gift giver. You have to level that debt by giving another gift of equal value or repaying them with some other sort of favor. This is why it’s important to never give a gift that is of too high a value. If anything, it’s better to give a gift that is cheaper, so that the receiver does not feel burdened when they have to repay the gift. Sometimes people in Japan will purposefully give an expensive gift when the occasion does not call for it to show off their wealth. This probably happens in America too.

Some gifts that are never given are knives, candles, combs, fragile items, and mirrors. This is due to the various superstitions behind such items.

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