Sunday, December 17, 2006

Winter Gift Giving

Japan has two gift-giving seasons, one in the winter and one in the summer. The winter one is called oseibo and the summer one is o-chugen. These gift-giving times are different from the type of holiday gift-giving you find in the U.S. In the States, piles of presents are given at once during Christmas and family and friends are a heavy focal point for such gift-giving.

In Japan, the gifts that are given during the two seasons tend to be less personal and are given to people who you have a relationship with in order to express gratitude for the relationship and to juice the bond between the parties a little. They're also given out of obligation in many cases.

At my former company, we used to receive large quantities of such gifts twice a year. During the first half decade or so of the 12 years I worked at my office, the office ladies would take all the goodies around to every person in the office and distribute them. As the years went on and the company's business diminished and fewer gifts came in, they tended to keep them tucked away as much as possible for themselves, especially if the gift was chocolate, cake, cookies, or Japanese sweets.

They were especially good at skipping the foreigners on distribution rounds of such items because we were tucked away in cubicles and couldn't see what was going on until we entered the main office to see a goodie on every desk. Mind you, I don't think this was about prejudice, I think it was about opportunity. We were the only ones who weren't in the regular open office plan so it was easier to skip us without making it obvious. When it came to a choice between another chocolate in their desk drawer for later snacking or doing the courteous thing, the chocolate won.

Two staple types of gifts were senbei (rice crackers) and beer. Nearly every year we would get a tin the size of a 5-gallon drum full of a variety of senbei that would keep the office girls going for weeks. The cases of beer were very slowly consumed by salespeople or possibly taken home. The truth is that I only saw the staff drink on the job at the end of the end of the year office cleaning session.

Being foreigners, my husband and I are rarely direct recipients of such gifts as they seem to be exchanged more as part of business relationships than personal ones. While students give teachers little souvenir gifts (omiyage) on occasion or small gifts of appreciation, they don't tend to give summer or winter gifts to teachers. My husband received the box of Godiva chocolate and cookies (pictured above) from the mother of one of his very few child students. Given that the Japanese are embracing Christmas gift-giving more and more, it's hard to tell if this was an oseibo gift or related to Christmas but my money is on it being a winter gift (and quite a nice one at that).

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