Sadie Lake writes about the tradition which goes alongside gift giving in Japan
Japanese culture has a lot of charming little intricacies that are unique solely to it. One of those intricacies is the tradition of gift-giving. Gift-giving itself has a long and important history throughout East Asia. For the Japanese, it is a sign of respect, generosity, and amicability between parties. Gift-giving is prominent in all aspects of life, from the political to the personal. Though it may seem effortless from the outside, the giving of omiyage is a very structured and systematic process. It’s not nearly as simple as picking up a souvenir from a trip for your close friends – it’s much more than that. More so than a simple gesture, omiyage is a way of life.
In Western culture, giving a gift to someone isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, but it’s not exactly a regular one, either. If it’s not their birthday or some sort of important party or event like a wedding, chances are you won’t be buying someone a gift. Of course, gift-giving is always a case-by-case basis, and there are exceptions to every rule, but we’re not here to talk about whether you gave a gift to your Grandma on her birthday last year or if you remembered to send a card to your cousin who just graduated from University. We’re here to delve deeper into the complicated categorisation that is Japanese omiyage culture.
“You don’t have to know someone very well to present them with omiyage – it’s the fact that you did present them with it that matters.”
If you were to crack open a Japanese-English dictionary and look up the word ‘omiyage’, you’d likely be presented with the translation ‘souvenir’. Though it’s probably the closest literal translation, the two words are not strictly synonymous. Whilst souvenirs are usually something you’d get for your close friends and family after going on a big trip somewhere, you’d buy omiyage for your friends, family, colleagues, and even your boss after even going only one town away or to the new resort down the street. Incidentally, while in Western culture the giving of a gift to someone is usually quite personal, in Japanese culture it’s quite the opposite. It’s very standardised and though it’s wrong not to present someone with omiyage, not too much thought needs to go into it to make it nice. You don’t have to know someone very well to present them with omiyage – it’s the fact that you did present them with it that matters.
When I was staying with my friend in Japan a few years ago, we decided to go see her family that lived out of town. The first thing we did after arriving to the bullet train station was to stop by an omiyage shop and pick up a few gifts for them. In most cases, the rule of thumb when buying someone omiyage is to get food items, and that’s mostly what you’ll see in those types of shops. In fact, the packaging is usually more important than the type or taste of the food that you’re buying. In general, Japanese apartments and houses are quite compact, so it’s inconvenient to buy gifts that are not perishable or disposable. While in Western culture we may find the gifting of washing-up liquid to be a bit strange or even offensive, in Japan it is a perfectly acceptable gift to bring to someone’s house when you visit. And for the record, the packaging is usually very aesthetically pleasing, which brings exclusivity to even the simplest product. Usefulness and convenience are greatly valued. Stationery such as notebooks, folders, and pens can also make good gifts – the basic ideology to stick to is to stay away from trinkets and useless items that will only amount to clutter.
Of course, it’s one thing to buy things for close friends and family members – you can usually be a little more creative with those types of items, depending on how well you know them. What happens when you’re meeting with some business colleagues, or with a group of people you’ve never met before? In this case, generic, group-oriented gifts are perfectly acceptable. While in Japan, I volunteered at a few elementary schools that my friend’s aunt had ties with. When we went to meet with the staff, we brought a few boxes of individually-wrapped cakes – a classic, standard sort of omiyage that you’ll see in any shop, regardless of location. As most meetings will happen over tea, the cakes were a perfect addition, and much appreciated.
By this point it’s been well-established that picking a gift is not as difficult as it seems. Now, you’ll be happy to know, neither is finding a gift. Earlier I mentioned picking something up at the bullet train station. In most cases, this is as far as you’ll need to go. Unless you’re looking for something specific, any old omiyage shop in whatever train station or airport you’re commuting from will do. Otherwise, pretty much any city or town in Japan will have an abundance of tourist shops and shopping centres. Now that you’re familiar with what makes a good gift, it will be easy to pick one out from any of those. Locals to the area might also have suggestions as to what you should buy, but be careful – unless you’re in a big city or a tourist hotspot, there’s a likelihood that you won’t get much information unless you can at least speak conversational Japanese. If you’ve gone on holiday, it’s preferable that the omiyage you buy is representative of that place. For example, Shizuoka prefecture is well-known for its green tea cultivation. So, if you had gone on a trip to Shizuoka, it would be assumed that the omiyage you’d bring back would be related to green tea in some way.
“Stationery such as notebooks, folders, and pens can also make good gifts – the basic ideology to stick to is to stay away from trinkets and useless items that will only amount to clutter.”
Buying omiyage from within Japan is easy, but what about when you’re bringing one from abroad? Western culture is not adapted to this type of gift-giving. It should be looked at as a case by case basis, but stick to the general rules. Find smaller, useful (easy to pack) items that are evident of where you were, and again, sticking to tourist shops can be very helpful as they usually have location-themed items such as stationery.
That’s the long and short of Japanese omiyage culture. Picking the right omiyage might seem more complex on paper, but I think the key to successful gift-giving in Japan is to immerse yourself into Japanese culture and to turn off that part of your brain that will keep trying to translate everything back into your own personal cultural experiences. Your brain will automatically try to make sense of the gift-giving process in the ways that it knows best, so you’ll have to be aware of that. Once you can recognise the cultural differences and the beauty within them, then you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master of gift-giving. And so, whether you’re moving to Japan or just visiting, embracing omiyage culture is one of the many ways that you can make your experience memorable and educational.
Originally featured in Rebel Issue 1.