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.
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.
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).
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.