Omiyage- Gift Giving in Japan

Do you like souvenirs?  Do you collect trinkets?  Maybe you love trying various foods that are unique to a town or area.  You should probably live in Japan.

Japan is (arguably) the center of gift giving culture in the world.  For those of you that point to Christmas in western cultures, Hanukkah, or other massive gift exchanges you’d be right.  For single events Japanese does not stand toe to toe with a pile of presents around a Christmas tree.   But then I get presents nearly every week.  Yesterday I received seven (yes 7) strawberry plants, for no reason at all.  But then there are two major aspects to gift giving in Japan.


Omiyage roughly means souvenir.  Whenever a person goes anywhere in Japan, they generally buy a load of omiyage for their co-workers and family.  For big trips this can sometimes be toys, figures, pictures, or anything that you might normally associate with souvenirs.  More often its food.  Japan has a massive industry around tourism.  It’s so big I’ll do another post just on that so stay tuned.  Almost anywhere you go in Japan has its own snack food that its ‘known for.’  There are almost always a myriad of shops, small to large, that will sell the treats conveniently and individually wrapped and ready for you in a bag.  In Okinawa the benimo purple sweet potato tarts are the most well known omiyage.  In Kyoto there were various kinds of mochi.




On Kitadaito they sell soaps, cookies, and teas made from gettou a local plant.



Nagasaki is famous for Castella Cakes, and most local places have unique omiyage for each location.

Often, when teachers go on trips, they bring back a packet of cookies, tea, or other snacks for the break room.  Sometimes teachers will bring back more personal gifts for people depending on where they went and why.

Other Gifts

Aside from omiyage gifts are given for weddings (cash), birthdays, funerals (cash), and other special events.  Gifts are even given by new tenants to their neighbors (usually something useful, like a small towel, or food).  These other gifts have their own customs for every situation.  Cash for weddings should be new and in the proper envelope, while cash for funerals the money should be used, and in a different envelope.  Aside from omiyage most presents are wrapped as well (even souvenirs are sometimes wrapped).

Reciprocal Gifts

In Japan it is usually appropriate to give a return gift of roughly half what you received for most occasions.  The exceptions are omiyage and birthday presents.  Even mourners will return small gifts of towels or rice coupons.  This tradition is one of the things that is uniquely Japan.  It is one of the foundations of polite Japanese society, and the reason for my new strawberry plants.

Reciprocal gift giving forms a kind of endless circle of ‘obligations’ that help to create relationships in a society where it is difficult to break down social barriers.  When a new neighbor arrives and gives a small present, there is a unique opportunity for conversation.  A return gift (though in this instance you are not required to give a return gift, its they way of saying ‘regard me kindly while I am living next to you’) is another opportunity.  It goes deeper.

When you do someone a favor, they feel an obligation towards you, and want to return the favor.  It creates a cycle that goes far beyond what most westerners are used to, usually in a good way.  Sometimes when I make too much food, I’ll take some over to a friend’s or neighbor’s.  Almost without fail I get something interesting in return.   One might be tempted to take the cynical view: you are bribing someone for their friendship.  This could not be farther from the truth.  In Japan, it’s so ingrained that many people don’t even think about it, if they get something, be it a favor, food, or gift, they will return it.

I’m not sure what I did to deserve my new plants, but I’ll think I should get to making some banana bread as a thank you.

  • Vladimir Ua

    One more step to realize the behavior of some of my friends and relatives, I mean their habit to give gifts. :) Thanks for describing all these things Japanese.

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  • LSC

    My relationship with my stepmother, who is Japanese American from Hawaii, is slightly strained. I am American of northern European heritage, and so is my Dad. I can tell that gifts are very important to her. She has given me very expensive things that I appreciate very much, and I have thanked her many times for them. I have tried to figure out what gifts she would like in return, but so far, I have had trouble. She doesn’t seem to appreciate what I give her, and I never receive a thank you note, or any words of appreciation, and I don’t see my gifts being used in their home.

    Does anyone have any good ideas about how to see this from her point of view? I realize there could be cultural differences, and I may have been insensitive somehow, but I regularly rack my brain about it and I can’t figure it out! I can give more info, if someone is interested. I am trying to understand how to discover what she might like, since gifts are important to her. The feeling that I get, from my point of view, is that my gifts are being rejected because they are from me. I’m not sure what to make of this.

    • Benjamin Martin

      All the normal “rules” of gift-giving get muddled when intermixing culture. What might be normal in Japan may or may not be followed by your step-mother in America (“rules” are even different in various regions of Japan and by social hierarchy). She could be trying to provide for you as her daughter and expect nothing in return, or any number of differences. I don’t know what your relationship is like with her, but I’d invite her out to lunch or tea and talk about it if possible. Explain your thankfulness for the gifts and your desire to give back. Who knows, it might help you to understand her cultural heritage better while giving her a chance to get to know you as well.

      • LSC

        Thank you very much for your kindness in replying.