Monday, February 11, 2008

Wedding "Gifts"

Yesterday one of my students attended a lesson with me after attending a funeral. She had a largish shopping bag with her which contained the gift she was given at the funeral (towels) and I took the occasion to quiz her on various aspects of money gifts in regards to the two big non-family occasions where money is frequently given. For the record, the other big money giving occasions is New Year's when kids are given cash as a gift (called "otoshidama"). However, non-family members don't tend to give kids cash at that time.

My relatively simplistic understanding of cash gifts in Japan was rather mixed up with my Western notions of why we give money. In fact, even when I know otherwise, it's difficult to separate the idea that we give money as a gift in the West to offer future security or assets to a person in the future. In Japan, money is given to cover costs of an event to which guests are invited, not as a personal bonus in celebration of an event.

At funerals, my student told me somewhat token amounts of money are given (about 5,000 yen ($46) for coworkers, 10,000 yen ($93) for closer friends or those who are older and have a higher status job) because the guest is not being treated to a lavishly catered experience. At weddings, however, she told me that the standard amount is 30,000 yen ($280) for any guest who isn't too young or underemployed to pay it. When I told her that this would be a bountiful financial gift by western standards and that even immediate family members (other than parents) would not give such an amount of money in most cases, she told me that family members don't pay this money at all. This came as a shock to me, but the way she explained it made sense. She said that the obligatory 30,000 yen is only paid by guests and family members are not considered "guests". She went on to explain that family members (again, aside from parents) will often give a real gift to celebrate a marriage, but not cash. According to my student, an exception to this "rule" is the case where a sibling is very much older than a younger sibling and the relationship is more parental as a result of the large age gap. In such cases, a sibling might give cash much as a parent would.

From a Western perspective, this seems a bit strange as it appears to require people who are less close to a couple to offer up more than family members. However, in Japan, the money is being used to pay for the facility where the reception (often called a "wedding party" by the Japanese) is held (often a hotel), the catering, and gift bags given to the guests. In other words, the 30,000 yen is the guest paying for his or her own "good time" at the party and not really a "gift" to the couple. The guests shoulder the burden of the cost of the celebration and not much more than that when the excessive cost of the hotel, which is sometimes between 1,000,000 ($9,315) and 2,000,000 yen ($18,630), is factored into the equation. Considering that family members won't be receiving souvenirs and sometimes don't partake of the catered food the same way as other guests, it makes a bit of sense that they don't pay what amounts to an "entrance fee" to the event.

From my perspective, this situation seems to have both advantages and disadvantages over the Western approach to wedding gifts. If you follow any trends in weddings back home these days, you'll notice that couples often treat their wedding as an opportunity to get as much cash from friends and family as possible. Many of them have already lived together for awhile and don't need much for their households so they try to coerce guests into giving them cash only or to choose from a small pool of very pricey high profile gifts. Rather than the wedding being an opportunity for people to offer their good wishes and a gift that will help the couple start their lives, they're being treated as a chance to milk their friends and family like cash cows so some lavish spending can be done by the couple on a vacation, car, etc. at everyone else's expense.

The Japanese approach to wedding gifts doesn't allow for this sort of crass exploitation of the event. In fact, the Japanese method is aimed at using the money to give guests a memorable experience though the drawback is that it's an experience the guest is footing the tab for. In fact, the worst point of this is that guests have no flexibility about what or how much they give in many cases and the "gift" is given most times out of obligation rather than good cheer and wishing the couple well. In the West, even if a couple asks you to give cash only (which is actually bad manners but people do it anyway), you can disregard their opportunism and do whatever you want. One could say that the money given at weddings in Japan supports the wedding industry and could be better spent on providing things the new couple may need.

My student said she had attended about 10 wedding recptions so far and each time had forked over the princely sum of 30,000 yen. When I asked her if her experiences made her consider what she'd like to do for her reception should she decide to marry in the future, she said she'd like to have a small "restaurant party" which is far less expensive, smaller, and only invites close friends. However, she said that, in the end, she's forked over a ton of dough to her friends and feels like she'd like to get some of it back so she'll likely have a lavish reception of her own some day to balance the scales.


Jimmy said...

This may come as a shock but sometimes a wedding gift from parent of the bride could be a house or a condo. In Japan, wives are not expected to work so parents will often give a huge gift at the wedding. Husbands are obligated to pay for the rest of their lives, however.

Emsk said...

Oh, weddings. Spare me! Not the nice part of wishing the couple well, which to me is the whole point, but the whole financial rigamarole that you've written about here, that you can become embroiled in if you're a guest.

A few years ago a friend got married. I think it set them back about 13 000 Brit pounds, money that they didn't have but felt obliged to spend on their guests. It can be such a vicious circle, of course, because the bride stated that they expected big gifts as rewards for giving the guest a wonderful day. Yet so many of these guests were people she didn't know or didn't even want to invite, but had to. It just seemed such a crazy output when it as known that this couple were anything but financially flush. The bride remarking that guests should be prepared to cough up seemed to spoil the whole value of the day, but I guess I have no idea what a wedding can tot up to.

Back home, in the UK at least, the wedding business is big business indeed. Me, I'm all in favour of a trip to Hawaii with hubby-to-be followed y a party at the local veggie place.

Shari said...

Jimmy: Hi there and thanks for your comment. Actually, it doesn't shock me at all. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've heard that this has happened to folks I've spoken with on more than one occasion. It's a pretty sweet deal, actually, if the parents can afford it. ;-)

Emsk: I have pretty much the same cynical view of lavish weddings as you. This is the reason my wedding cost a grand total of $500 including my dress.

I don't have a problem with people having the beautiful day they want, but I do have a problem with them spending money they don't have and then expecting gifts to compensate. What's worse is the tendency to invite a ton of people the couple doesn't care about to get more gifts and to make the cost per guest based on a larger scale a bit cheaper (at least in regards to catering).

I think the wedding industry is huge almost everywhere and it's something women buy into (I say women because few men want elaborate weddings and read magazines about nothing but weddings). The original intent of the ceremony and gifts has been pretty lost in commercialism and status-seeking.

I've known parents who took out mortgages on their homes to foot the wedding bill. It's just ridiculous.

Many thanks for your comment!

Emsk said...

My friend actually turned into Bridezilla in the run up to her wedding. While it was a wonderful day and everyone was happy to see her marry the man she loved, it did seem like a lot of stress, and it was felt not only by the couple but by all they came into contact with.

Being called at work to be asked silly questions about shimmering foundation is not my idea of a good time!

I remember her being very cross that her fiance wasn't in the slightest bit nervous about the whole event. I pointed out to her that it wa good that one of them wasn't panicking.

On the other hand, my sister and her American husband decided to get married. Di jokingly says that she was booking the wedding within an hour of them deciding - not that she was desperate or anything! They then rung round the whole family saying that they were off to Hawaii, and although they said anyone could go, you kind of got the impression that they wanted to do it on their own. Everyone was very happy for them and it meant that they didn't offend either family by a) having the wedding in London and not in LA or b) vice versa.

We had a party afterwards though.

Helen said...

I just thought I'd mention that the reason the wedding "gift" is set at 10 000, (sometimes up here it is), 30 000 or even 50 000 yen, is that it isn't easily divisible by two. Things that can be divisible by two are not supposed to be used at weddings. Even the chopsticks you use at a wedding are pre-separated, so that guests don't have to split them.

Just a bit of wedding trivia ;-)

badmoodmike said...

My mother's boss' daughter got married recently. To the tune of $40,000 for the ceremony and reception. Open bar, filet mignon, the works...

Must be nice.

My idea of a great wedding is going to an instant marriage chapel in Vegas and being married by an ordained Elvis impersonator. Any lady I marry would have to have a good enough sense of humor to actually want to do this, too! :)

It is ridiculous to me to see people spend huge fortunes for a wedding that may have no meaning later in life after they are divorced, a la the typical Hollywood wedding. It seems to me that the money would be better spent in something that can make better memories or be more useful, like a down payment on a nice house, a long honeymoon or some such.

I have to wonder how many extremely shallow people get married just because they want to have the huge do and have people fret over them, and not because they actually love the person they are marrying.

ThePenguin said...

For logistical reasons myself and Mrs. Penguin got married in a city well away from either set of relatives (London), and as no-one in either family sees much point in throwing money at these things, I didn't have to resist any pressure to deplete our (then much more) meagre resources. Don't think I can beat Shari's figure, but it must rank amongst the better-value London weddings of recent years.

Fortunately Mrs. Penguin once worked in one of these Japanese wedding places and hates the whole idea of that kind of thing as well.

The nearest we got was on our introductory trip to the "ancestral" village in Niigata, where there was a kaiseki style party in a restaurant, where I was slightly bemused to see envelopes changing hands which I presume paid for the whole thing.

SaffronSaris said...

I've not personally witnessed cash as gifts, but I remembered being happy whenever someone went for a business trip, even if it was a a day trip into Tokyo and back, because there would be omiyage, aka free food :)

Sherry said...

Not to disagree with your Japanese student, but I had a very large, very expensive wedding in Tokyo at a very well known hotel. Not because I wanted that, but because it was what my husband's family demanded. His parents gave us a huge sum of money and his brothers gave us money and gifts. His extended family -uncles, cousins, etc - gave very large gifts in the form of cash.

So, based on my experience, which I will admit may possibly have been totally unique but I don't entirely think so, I would say that your student isn't entirely correct in her generalizations about Japanese wedding customs and family members. Maybe that is the custom in the area of Japan she is from or perhaps amongst her socio economic group. (everyone in Japan claims they are all middle class, but we who live here no that is not true in the least)

Also, most of the weddings my husband and I have been to cost a lot more than the modest 1,000,000-2,000,000 you mentioned. You can have a wedding that cheaply of course, but I would say at least 3,000,000 - 4,000,000 or sometimese even 5,000,000 is much more average, for the Tokyo area anyway.

Having said all of that and being through the experienc myself, I don't really see anything wrong with the Japanese custom of lavish weddings and basically paying money to attend someone's wedding. YOur are given what is usually a very nice meal and lots of presents in return. It is a system that seems to work very well for the Japanese and very few, if any, couples end up with huge debt because of the wedding. You always have the option to decline a wedding invitation if you can't afford it or don't agree with it.

I've been told that in regards to funerals a smaller, token, sum is given , usually enough to cover the present you get only, because there is insurance to cover the high cost of that.

Shari said...

Emsk: It's funny how all perspective is lost by the bride on such occasions. They become the center of the universe and nothing else matters. If someone called me about sparkly foundation, let's just say that I wouldn't be very helpful in my comments. ;-)

Helen: Students have told me that it's bad luck to give an amount which is not easily divisible by two, but it sort of makes no sense to me as anything with a zero on the end easily divides by two! In fact, if they were sincere about the whole "2" division, you'd be giving them things like 11 yen. ;-)

Mike: I agree with you about using the money more productively, though I must say I personally couldn't go the Vegas wedding route because the scene is too overstimulating for an HSP like me.

My husband and I recruited a "hippy minister" who was granted the ability to marry people back when it was something you could do via mail order. He didn't belong to a church so there was no religious element and he didn't charge that much to do the ceremony. I think it was something on the order of $100 for his part. My father-in-law paid for our wedding and my husband's best friend's mother paid for my dress and shoes. Even though other folks footed the bill, we kept it very low key.

This may be an absolutely unfair thing to say, but it's my opinion that the priorities at the wedding are a reflection of the values a person has. If you marry someone who is willing to spend 40 grand on a one-off celebration, it says something about their future spending habits! So, better that you get a woman who will be happy for your idea of a subdued and kitschy wedding so that she has the same values as you!

Penguin: One side note before I reply to your comment...I can't post comments to your blog! I've tried and they seem not to get through.

Mrs. Penguin sounds very sensible. For a kaiseki (multi-course, light dish meal, for those who don't know what it is) celebration, I think it's pretty reasonable for other folks to cover the costs.

Saffronsaris: I remember all the food omiyage from salesmen returning to the office. Unfortunately, I often didn't get any as the office girls didn't pass it around to teachers if they thought we wouldn't notice (we were at one end of the office and they were at the other). They'd stash any leftover treats in their desks rather than give them to us. :-p

Thanks to all for the comments!

Sherry said...

PS. Helen is right about the division of tihngs into 2. The amounts of 10,000, or 30,000, or 50,000 refer to the actual physical money. 1- 10,000 yen bill or 3 bills or 5 bills. Of course, mathmatically they can be divided in two, but physically they cannot. If you give 10,000 you must give one, brand new single 10,000 yen note. Not two 5000 yen notes for example.

Words related to separation, cutting, dividing, etc. are also avoided at Japanese weddings. I can't remember what word they use, but you don't "cut" the cake at a Japanese wedding.

Also, although people don't always seem to stick to this rule as closely, if you give wedding gifts or in regards to the return gifts guest are given they try to avoid even numbered objects. You will get three or five little plates, rarely two and almost never four for example. Of course, things in 4 are often avoided in all gift giving circumstances.

badmoodmike said...

sherry said:
It is a system that seems to work very well for the Japanese and very few, if any, couples end up with huge debt because of the wedding.

This is the troubling part, to me...the number of people that have lavish weddings and go into debt to do it. A big do wedding is bad enough, but if it is paid for without the couple or the parents going into debt, then that's great.

The number of young couples that go into a marriage with a huge debt to pay for a one-off extravaganza has to be enormous, considering the number of Detroit-phone-book sized wedding magazines that proliferate the magazine sections of stores.

What is even worse is to see parents mortgage their house to pay for an extravagant wedding, simply because it is their little girl's dream.

I'm all for giving kids the world, but how about a down payment on a house instead? Or a $5,000 honeymoon to a resort rather than $25,000 for a wedding?

The Japanese system, while somewhat strange to us Americans, is IMHO a much better way...

And bridezillas...there is a program on, I think, Learning Channel or something with the same name. The way these women act...Lord, there isn't enough Valium...LOLz!

Tomosan said...

sherry, the Japanese word for cutting the wedding cake is "nyuutou", which means "put the knife (in the cake)".
My two cents worth ^-^