In Japanese culture, it’s customary to offer your host family a gift, or give a gift when coming to someone’s house for dinner or special occasions. The gift giving tradition can be intricate, and it’s necessary to have a basic grasp of this custom when interacting with the locals.
Japanese Gifts: Omiyage and Meibutsu
The most popular type of gift is known as the omiyage, a gift that represents a place the giver came from or travelled to recently. For instance, if you just got back from China, a nice gift that represents that place is highly appreciated. Some of the most popular omiyage items include chocolates, candies, wine, rice crackers, fruits, and other alcoholic beverages.
The same principle holds for those who travel within the country. Meibutsu refers to a prized item from a specific Japanese region. Most cities and towns in Japan have their own specialty. If you’ve been in Japan long enough, someone may ask you what your town’s meibutsu is. So when you travel within the country, be sure to pick up a meibutsu or two that you can give to your host family or friends.
Japanese Gift Giving Tips
There are two popular gift-giving seasons: chugen (中元) and seibo. Chugen is for the winter season and seibo is for summer. The Japanese give gifts to friends, especially those who have helped in the past. Gifts don’t have to be costly. In fact, a lot of people feel embarrassed giving expensive gifts and could feel bad expecting them. The art is in the giving, not just the gift itself. The best gifts are still the meaningful ones that build a deeper connection between giver and recipient. Note these gift giving tips while in Japan.
Place the gift item in a shopping bag. This keeps it out of sight until you present it. But be sure to wrap your gift as well; don’t just toss it in the bag.
Present the gift in in the living room area.
When you hand your friend the gift, say “Tsumaranai mono desu ga.” This means “this is boring but…,” expressing modesty. But in corporate settings, avoid such phrase, as it shows insignificance and belittles the worth of the recipient. Instead, use the phrase “honno o shirushi de gozai masu ga,” which means “this is a token of my appreciation, but…” as it shows gratitude to the recipient.
Do not offer gifts with the numbers 4 and 9 as they represent death. Don’t give four pieces of a thing. It’s best to go for a pair, which is considered lucky.
Do not give the same gifts to unequal individuals. Social rank is important and prominent in Japan. If you give a bottle of sake to a businessman, do not give the same gift to his boss.
Expect the recipient to reject the gift, and continue to offer it. In Japanese culture, it is polite to turn down a gift *twice* before accepting it.
Another unique Japanese custom is for ladies to offer chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day. The woman may offer chocolate to a man she admires or, of course, to her partner (giri choko / 義理チョコ /, or obligation chocolate).
Whenever you visit a Japanese household, don’t forget these gift giving tips. And consider carrying over something of their essence in your life back in the U.S. Even a small gift—sometimes especially a small gift, if it’s heartfelt and original—can convey much thoughtfulness and good will, anywhere in the world.