The Art of Gift-Giving
a guide on exchanging gifts with the Japanese
by Yuki Kim
The Japanese love to give gifts. This habit is not
practiced only on special occasions, but it's widely accepted as giri -
a social duty and obligation. Gift-giving is an accepted practice encountered
everyday, from taking a little something to a neighbor to receiving an
extra radish from the greengrocer. If you give someone a gift, you can
be sure to receive one in return. And, if you want a gift, you must give
When I was a child, I sometimes felt like Santa Claus because my mother
forced me to take gifts to my friends' houses. Although gift-giving was
a nice thing, I kept telling her that it wasn't absolutely necessary in
American society. After a few years of protest, I finally persuaded her
to settle on equipping me with bags of chips and a 12-pack of soda instead.
My mother wasn't the only Japanese person I observed performing
this strange ritual. Whenever her Japanese friends visited, they always
brought something wrapped in pretty paper and glorious bows. In Japan,
when relatives called on my grandparents, they would often bring along
a case of $100 melons or some other fruit.
For the Japanese,
gift-giving at its finest is a token of appreciation, and at its worst,
a competition. When you return a gift, yours must be better and more expensive.
In turn, the gift you will receive will be better and more expensive than
the one you gave. The value of the gifts increase successively.
Although this may seem extreme to Americans, the notion of gift-giving
is not alien to us. We have all given or received gifts. The Japanese just
integrate it into a part of their day-to-day life. Because gift-giving
is such an important social aspect of Japanese life, it's important to
be aware of some key factors. These pointers will guide you to know how
and when to give and receive gifts.
Although Japanese gift-giving may seem a bit strange and too ritualistic,
it is nevertheless a significant aspect of the Japanese societal culture.
If you keep these pointers in mind, you'll be sure to impress any Japanese.
Whether it be for business or pleasure, you will successfully escape their
stereotypical misconception of the baka-gaijin (stupid foreigner).
Devalue the gift you give. The important thing is to act and seem humble.
You don't want the recipient to think that you are arrogant or proud. Denigrate
your gift as much as possible. It doesn't matter if the label on the box
bears the symbol for Gucci. The Japanese value the appearance of a humble
gift-giver who tries to shun away from praise.
Praise the gift you receive. Although praising may seem obvious, overpraising
the gift is the key. It's also important to praise the fine taste of the
gift-giver in making that particular choice for you. And don't forget to
give a thousand and one thanks.
Don't open the gift unless you are urged to do so. And when you do, you
must take the utmost care in unwrapping it. Don't look eager, and be careful
that you don't tear the paper or cut the ribbon. After observing, praising,
and thanking, be sure to rewrap the gift as if it had never been opened.
Try to appear as if you take great pride in the value of the gift. Humility
is valued in Japanese society as a virtue and even as a norm.
Choose perishable/edible gifts. In general, don't buy things such ornaments,
vases, and kitchenware; it's already assumed that everyone has these things.
To do so may imply that you don't approve of the other person's taste.
Also, most Japanese houses are very small and don't have extra space for
Offer something perishable or edible. Some suggestions include fruits,
smoked salmon, canned goods, coffee/teas, jars of jam, and oils. Though
not as common, fine wine or gourmet bottled drinks are options as well.
Wrap all gifts attractively. Wrap anything and everything with good-quality
paper along with bows and ribbons. Japanese gift-giving is an art and it
should be treated as such.
You should look out for the colors when choosing your ribbons. Red and
white are typically used for Valentine's Day, as red and green are for
Christmas. Gold and silver are for weddings. Be especially careful with
black and white - use those colors only for funerals. Because the Japanese
can be quite picky and superstitious, be aware about the implications of