It’s the Outside That Counts: Japanese Gift Giving Etiquette 101

If someone ever told you “it’s what is on the inside that counts,” they might not have been fully truthful. In Japan, the presentation of a gift is an art form that wordlessly speaks of intentions, symbols, value and the status of a relationship before the present is even unwrapped.

 

More weight is in what a gift looks like, not what’s inside. With that said, if unfamiliar with Japanese gift giving culture, it’s advised that you let the shop wrap your present because something as simple as wrapping paper color could give off an unintended message.

 

In addition to elaborate paper, beautifully tied chords and intricate folding, sometimes gifts are still wrapped and presented in traditional re-usable cloths called Furoshiki which has been a way to beautify and conceal a gift since ancient times.

 

Japan is known as the most prevalent gift giving country in the world. In fact, a common stereotype is that they have closets full of unused gifts because the culture gifts for every imaginable occasion. Unlike a thank you card in the United States, Japanese tradition is to send a thank you gift which often elicits a thank you gift for the thank you gift. As you can imagine, this can end up going back and forth and become quite competitive. With that said, enjoy learning all there is to know about etiquette, tradition, presentation and all things gift giving in Japan!

 

Good Gift Wrap Colors: Red is an energetic color and symbolizes longevity so is a great wrapping color for Birthdays. However, red wrapping color combined with white is used more for weddings. Pastels (especially pink and yellow) tend to be the safest colors for any occasion because they are looked at as cheerful.

 

Bad Gift Wrap Colors: There are many color combos that may represent an unintended intention so be careful. For example, black and red together represent sexuality and should be avoided. Bright colors may come across as a little too flashy.

 

Presenting a Gift: Gifts should always be given and received with two hands and it’s common for the recipient to decline a gift up to three times before accepting it. The timing of gift presentation is very important as it is seen as very rude to give a gift (particularly hostess or business) in the beginning of an interaction. This gesture will be viewed as rushing the relationship or meeting.

 

Unique Etiquette: We spoke to our gift giving experts at Giftypedia and they had some great information for us concerning Japanese gift giving etiquette. “If the gift is wrapped, you should open it in private unless you are in front of close family members. Otherwise, be sure to express your gratitude and ask questions about the gift to show your interest.” They also explained that gifts should always be reciprocated even if the reciprocation is a month later.

 

Bribery vs. Gifting: Because gift giving is so common, it’s never seen as bribery. However, reciprocation is standard and gifts that are expensive will create a pricey and unwanted social obligation for some people.

 

Taboo Gifts: Never give four or nine of something, these are unlucky numbers. Lilies and lotus blossoms are reserved for funerals so don’t gift these flowers. Giftypedia also said, “there is also a superstition that potted plants encourage sickness and should be avoided as well.”

 

Good Gifts: Because gift giving is such a prevalent part of the Japanese culture, they are often overwhelmed with an abundant collection of gifts. Therefore, something edible is the number one gift suggestion. Sweets from the giver’s own country are always a great idea.

 

Business Gift Giving Standards: The exchange of gifts is a central part of business etiquette. It’s common and expected to exchange gifts when doing business with Japan and this always takes place at the end of a business meeting. We found out from Giftypedia that “many times a sense of competition will develop to give the most original or thoughtful gift.”

 

As far as what to give, it is viewed as tasteless to give a gift with one’s own company logo on it. Reciprocation is standard so it is suggested that when doing business with Japan one should bring an assortment of gifts so that they are sure to gift something comparable to what was received. Business gifts tend to stay on the pricey side and encompass anything from a rare fruit basket to fine wine to well-known luxury brands of scarves and cuff links.

 

Gift Giving Financial Stats: During the two most popular gift giving occasions- Ochugen and Oseibo-department stores make up to 60% of their yearly revenue.

 

Historical Gift Giving: In 1912, Japan gifted 3,000 cherry trees to Washington D.C and this is why they hold a national cherry blossom festival every year. Now cherry blossom trees are quite prevalent in the US, especially the east coast. Thanks Japan!

 

After WWII, the US sent cuttings from the original cherry trees to help restore trees lost in bombing attacks.

 

Gift Giving Occasions: The Japanese are arguably the biggest gift giving culture so they give a gift for every occasion imaginable from housewarming to graduations.

 

*Hostess gifts: Hostess gifts are always given. If the giver is at a Japanese home from another country the standard hostess gift is desserts from your home country like gourmet chocolates or other candies.

 

*Birthday: Birthdays were not traditionally celebrated but younger generations are starting to now celebrate birthdays.

 

* O-kaeshi: The giving of a thank you gift. These are given after weddings and birthday parties and should cost one half of the value of the gift being thanked for.

 

* Omiyage: It’s expected for travelers to bring back gifts, or omiyage, for friends, family and coworkers.

 

*Christmas: Christmas is becoming a prevalent holiday in Japan. Store fronts and city streets are often adorned with trees and lights and many families exchange gifts. Christmas is viewed as simple fun and workers don’t get the day off work.

 

*Ochugen and Oseibo: Easily the biggest gift giving occasions in Japan. Giftypedia explained that “Ochugen is a mid-year celebration and gifts are given as a gesture of gratitude, while Oseibo is celebrated toward the end of the year and gifts represent indebtedness.” Gifts are exchanged between friends, family, teachers and coworkers and employers choose these times of year to add bonuses to their employees checks.

 

*Wedding: Thanks to giftypedia, we learned that “Giving money to couples is the most common gift. Money should be given in an envelope with an odd number of bills. Superstition suggests that if the bills can be evenly divided in two, the couple may split. When the couple returns from their honeymoon, they will bring souvenirs for their guests.”

 

* Valentines Day: Giftypedia informed us that “for Valentine’s Day, ladies give chocolates to the man she is serious about and an obligatory chocolate to other males. On March 14th, White Day, the chosen males return the gesture by giving more expensive chocolates back to the women who gave them the chocolates on Valentine’s Day.”

 

*Baby: Baby gifts are typically given after the birth of the child. In return the parents will send out a nice commemorative gift with the child’s name on it.

 

*Enjoy this article? Click here to learn about gift giving in other parts of the world.