Gift-giving is one of the most historically preserved traditions in Japanese culture. Gifts are often used to express gratitude and care when words are not enough.
History of gift-giving
Gifts were initially given only to gods to express gratitude for the success of the harvest. As time went by, people began sending gifts to family members as a way of saying thank you and offering best wishes for happiness, health, and success. Ikimitama is an example of children gifting fish to their parents as a wish for good health. Edo merchants introduced a gift-giving culture in business, offering hand towels (tenugui) to their regular customers to express gratitude for their business success. These practices introduced the gift-giving customs we observe today in Japanese culture.
Types of gift-giving practices
Gifts are exchanged throughout the year, serving different purposes:
Seasonal Greetings: Ochugen and Oseibo
Ochugen and Oseibo are semi-annual gifts that include seasonal greetings to show gratitude during the year. Ochugen is a summer gift greeting sent between early July and mid August to appreciate others during the first half of the year. Oseibo is an end-of-year greeting gift sent between early to mid-December to show a year's worth of gratitude and wishes for an ongoing relationship for the following year. Food and beverages are standard choices for these gifts.
Multi-purpose gift: Temiyage
Temiyage is a year-round gift-giving practice with many meanings including greetings, appreciation, apology, etc. It translates to "a gift that can be held by a hand," serving as a "cushion" to break the ice and avoid meeting someone empty-handed. Individually wrapped snacks are popular when visiting a household, allowing hosts and guests to enjoy the gift together during the stay. It is also customary to give temiyage to neighbors when moving to a new neighborhood, with household goods being a popular choice.
Souvenir for others: Omiyage
Omiyage is a souvenir bought for friends, family, and colleagues to share the experience of your trip. The omiyage custom dates back to when people shared received goods from a shrine with family members as proof of their pilgrimage. Schools allocate time for omiyage during field trips for students to bring home gifts for their family. Employees also buy omiyage while on vacation to share with colleagues to express gratitude for the ongoing support while they were away.
Gift Sharing: Osusowake
Osusowake is an act of sharing gifts which are received, bought, or harvested. People give osusowake when there is more than enough food or simply because you want to share something good. It is a simple act of giving that can be practiced in everyday life, reminding people that sharing is caring.
Gift etiquette and meaning
Gift presentation is equally important as selecting the gift. There are two essential rules to keep in mind when giving a gift in Japan:
- Unwrapped gifts are frowned upon: Make sure to wrap the gift in either cloth or paper to show respect and to avoid damage. Adding noshi, an origami-like ornament attached to the top-right of the gift box indicating a celebration, or mizuhiki, a decorative cord used to wrap the gift box in order to ward off evil, indicate the gift is unopened, strengthen relationships and are also recommended. Different types of decorative ties indicate the luck you wish for the person.
- Present the gift using both hands with the gift taken out from the bag: The purpose of gift bags is to shield the gift from dirt. A gift must be taken out from the bag and presented facing the recipient using both hands. However, it is acceptable to hand over gifts inside a bag for practical reasons if it is outdoors.
To whom do you wish to express your gratitude with a thoughtful touch of a gift?
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.