Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Much is made of Japanese gift-giving and how it occurs at the drop of a hat. I think that the ritualized and formal manner in which gifts are given tends to make it seem more frequent and obvious compared to western cultures than it actually is. If you examined the frequency of "gifts" in both cultures, I'm betting they'd actually come out pretty even.

When I say "ritualized and formal manner", I mean that nothing seems to be handed over casually in Japan. If you receive even a small item like a chocolate bar or a cupcake, it's usually wrapped in paper or at the very least given in a bag. In the States, we might give someone a souvenir or box of candy but we just say something like, "I picked up this (whatever) for you when I was in (wherever)." Such gifts don't feel like they're part of a gift-giving occasion because they aren't wrapped or hidden in any fashion.

A very sweet thank you note from our landlord.

The formal nature of gift-giving was brought home several days ago when my husband went to Krispy Kreme for some birthday-related donuts and decided to pick up a half dozen to give to the landlord and his family. Back home, this sort of "gift" is often casually handed over and the other party is thanked and that's it. In Japan, such acts often elicit either a return gift or a formal thank you note. This is rather a nice thing except that you can find yourself sometimes hesitating to give a gift out of fear of placing the other person in a position of feeling obliged to reciprocate. This isn't something we tend to worry about so much back home (except at Christmas).

The other thing which tends to make gift-giving in Japan appear more remarkable is that gifts are often given in the opposite situation as they are back home and they are offered more consistently because of social obligation. For instance, if a new person moves into one of the six units in our building, that person often (but not always) goes door-to-door to the other 5 tenants and gives a small gift like a tea towel or small food item (e.g., bean cakes, soba). In the U.S., a new neighbor is sometimes greeted by the the people in his new neighborhood with gifts. The concept of the "Welcome Wagon" is based on the idea that the new party is made to feel a part of the community through experiencing the warmth of neighboring people and businesses through gifts. In Japan, the responsibility is on the newcomer. In the U.S., the responsibility is on the existing social network.

With Christmas on the horizon, thoughts of western gift-giving habits aren't far from my mind. At this time of year, there's an explosion of consumerism, obligation and generosity back home (a time which starts earlier and earlier). Japan has no equivalent of the sort of excess the U.S. has in this regard, at least not on a personal level. The closest they come is winter and summer gift-giving but that isn't quite the same as it's largely confined to business giving and usually isn't personalized as it mainly involves giving gift packs of food, soap, or other utilitarian items.

The other big personal gift-giving situation back home, birthdays, tends not to be an occasion for giving gifts here either. When I ask my students whether or not they got many birthday gifts, most of them say they got one or none but just went out to a bar or restaurant with their friends. I sometimes feel a little bad for them when they say they don't get anything but then I realize they don't expect anything anyway so it's not a big deal to them.

Generally speaking, I think people in the U.S. give gifts in similar quantity but they tend to give them so casually that they're not seen as gifts and those gifts which are given as formal, wrapped presents tend to be tightly attached to two specific occasions whereas in Japan gifts are almost always formal and not necessarily closely attached to occasions.


Miko said...

I feel that with Japanese gifts, there is almost always an ulterior motive behind them (usually quite an innocuous one, mind you), whereas Westerners will give gifts quite happily without expecting anything in return. If I gave a gift to a Japanese friend out of the blue, for no apparent reason (such as, to express gratitude or to ask for future favours), then I would be regarded with quite some suspicion, whereas a Western friend would be happy, say thanks, and leave it at that.

I really dislike feeling obligated to bring souvenirs to people I don't know or like very much, it can be tiresome, especially on overseas trips. In the past we've taken advantage of a service that allows us to order souvenirs in advance and have them delivered to our doorstep before our very departure! That was handy, but kind of crazy that we had to go to those lengths. I even know some people who keep their travel plans to themselves, so that they won't have to haul back the obligatory cookies and key-rings for all their co-workers! Very sensible, I think.

Christmas: bah, humbug.

Shari said...

I can't say that I feel there's an ulterior motive though I think I may know why you say that and understand it (and kind of agree). I think that there's usually a concrete goal of building a certain relationship between themselves and the other party. This is a kind of ulterior motive but I always associate ulterior motives with more specific goals (like trying to get a raise, a promotion, a favor of some sort).

I think your teaching conditions are different than mine though so your experiences may be vastly different. From the posts on your blog about your work, you seem to get roped into a lot of extra tasks and activities as part of your work or connections whereas I'm free of that. You may indeed have more experiences where people have an ulterior motive than I.

Ah, Christmas. I had a bad year last year but I'm hopeful that I'll get my spirit back this year. I've got plans in place for some things already. :-)

Miko said...

I think that our teaching conditions might be very different, but I honestly have no basis for comparison anyway because almost all of the jobs I've ever had in Japan have been through private referrals - in fact, I've only ever attended one formal job interview in all my years in Japan! For some reason I feel I am often held up to different standards than the average gaijin in Japan (perhaps because I have a child in the education system here?) and I do feel much more pressure to abide by those standards. I don't really mind it these days, but I do miss the relative freedom of relationships in the Western world, where you don't get caught up in a web of obligations as soon as you accept an invitation for coffee or whatever, and you don't have to keep tabs on everybody else because you know they are doing it to you.

Sorry you had a rough time last year, I've been through a few of those in the past! Fingers crossed for '08.

I still don't like Christmas very much. Especially the way they do it in Japan (fried chicken and sex?).

Eli said...

As someone who celebrates the Jewish holidays but was brought up in a western culture of gift giving. I personally don't have any ulterior motives when gift giving it is more of an obligation because it is a holiday never really wanting anything in return.

Gift giving gets hectic during the big holidays which normally happen during September or October sometimes 24h apart.

Just my 2 cents. Always wondered about other culture's gift giving traditions.

Shari said...

Hi, Eli, and many thanks for commenting!

I think that, depending on how you want to view any situation, there are always ulterior motives even though they are often very benign ones. Even the most generous person can be seen to be self-serving if one believes his motive is to feel good about himself. However, that's not the way I see it because I think it's very cynical to scrutinize all behavior with an eye toward finding a selfish motivation.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

I've had a couple of return gifts that shocked me.

The first one was in return for flowers I gave a student when I went to visit them in hospital. I had spent a lot of money, but then the return gift was about double the value!

Another was for a birthday present I gave. I had been given pearl earrings for my birthday from a teacher I work with. I wanted to give her something special for her birthday and made her a bag from antique obi fabric. She then gave me a present to say thank you for the birthday present!

I also find it uncomfortable getting presents for attending funerals. The last one I went to, I was given boxed seaweed at the funeral. I knew I'd get something and remarked later to my husband that it was different to the usual brand-name towels that I'd recieved in the past. The towels arrived in the post, a delayed present from that same funeral!

Shari said...

Hi, Melanie and thanks very much for your interesting comment!

Your experiences illustrate very well why I sometimes feel I do my Japanese acquaintances a bigger favor by not giving them a gift in situations where I'm mildly inclined to. I feel like it just places a burden on them.

I've never been to a funeral in Japan (thankfully, no one I know has died) though I do recall students mentioning the gifts at funerals thing. I guess that it's their way of acting on the obligation they feel when you give them money.