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Celebrations call for all kinds of special gifts.

Some standard items often seen are sumo-wrestlers after their victory,
not only getting their official bowl, but also large bottles of sake
and a large sea bream, tai that is in Japanese.

It looks gorgeous to hold, but it also is a pun on the phrase
omedetai (=something to celebrate).

When a shop or some new business is opened,
there are lots of orchids at the entrance.

Those were given by friends and sponsors.
Never sunflowers, always white orchids, of the same kind,
gifts in Japan are not random, but more ritualized.

When giving things in Japan, it’s not only the intention that counts,
timing and the presentation are equally important.  


Every year around the end of November till mid-December
there is a little ritual going on.

It's closing in to the time to give oseibo gifts.

The oseibo gifts are really connected to the Japanese feeling of
“osewa ni narimashita”, or more precisely
“ichinen osewa ni narimashita”.

Translations always lack part of the original feeling,
but it means “thank you for everything this past year”.

It's a general feeling of thanking for
being in a good relation with each other.
Not a casual thanks, nor gratitude for one special thing.

Self-employed people send
oseibo gifts to some of their business relations,
in my family the parents-in-law send each other oseibo gifts.
A protégé may send this to a (former) mentor too.

Expensive fruits

When choosing oseibo gifts,
you can't simply bake cookies and send them,

it's a formalized ritual. Shops sell oseibo gift sets.
Usually every-day products, but in nice containers,
nicely wrapped, a beauty to the eye.

There usually is an additional wrap on
the outside mentioning it's an oseibo gift.
It shows it's recently arranged for this occasion,
and this way the receiver also knows the purpose.

Usually, these gifts are not handed over, but sent.
You don't need to send them yourself,
you just leave the address details at the shop,
and they'll take care of the sending.

The price range depends of course on your financial situation,
but everyday Japanese middle-class people spend anything
from 3,000 to 8,000 yen per gift.

A lot of people try to give something from a store with name recognition,
the most sought-after probably being
the Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi department stores.

And alas, that makes they can ask more for almost the same goods.
Popular oseibo gift sets contain a few different choices of the same product type.
Popular products categories include coffee, beer, juice, cakes, etc.

the famous Japanese fruit store Sembikiya has
4 categories of oseibo sets: 5, 10, 20 thousand or over.

A 10,000 Yen set contains up to 10 pieces of fruit
like one mango, an apple, 2 kiwis, etc.

People receiving this set know a regular kiwi will maybe cost much less,
but they also know that the Sembikiya gift set will probably be 10,000 Yen.

Summer gifts

Similarly, every summer season
there is a period when people send ochugen gifts.

When people do so, depends on the area,
especially Tokyo is a month earlier than the rest of Japan,
doing it before July 15th, the traditional date of Obon in Tokyo.

Most of the rest of Japan has to mid-August. Again,
people send elaborately packed gift sets.

Usually with things easy to share among groups of people.
So instead of a large bottle,
10 cans of juice, beer, coffee, or something.
It's especially popular to send to people you don't meet as much,
to make a gesture that you are still holding them into your heart.

Usually prices are 3, 5 or 10 thousand Yen.
Before you enthusiastically embrace this custom, there is one down-side.

Once you start sending these gifts,
it is kind of difficult to remove someone from your ochugen list.
Last year you signaled you thought of him/her.

Do you want to signal this year you no longer think of him/her?

Tea leaves

When you know the person well,
you can adapt the gifts to their taste.

The recipient is a gourmet lover?
Why not find some precious local food for this occasion,
as long as it's packed and presented in the same way.
Also, typically Japanese would be to
make the ochugen somewhat summer-like.

There are beer types only brewed in summer,
you can send light summer noodles called somen.

When puzzled what to send,
send tea leaves, anyone can use a few more drums of tea leaves.

Never send money, that would be an insult,

the sender is supposed to
- though doesn't need to - be of lesser status than the addressee.


As in many countries Japanese grandparents
don’t know exactly what present their grandchildren would appreciate.

When the grandchildren visit for special occasions,
such as New Year’s Day, they give a little money.
It comes in nicely decorated tiny envelopes.

On the envelope there is often written
“otoshi-dama”, a little cash gift for the New Year.

The envelopes sometimes bear a message,
a wish, or there is some space to write something personal.
Often there is a colorful picture of the Chinese zodiac sign of the year.
(a rat, ox, etc.)

The envelope is so small that paper money only fits in folded twice.
Apparently, they originally were supposed to contain coins.

At New Year’s Day when families come together
children receive otoshi-dama from uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents.


Similar small enveloped money is given on many different occasions,
such as graduations.

The designs are simple but very colorful and interesting.
Never give money out of your wallet,
always prepare a nice envelope in advance.

This also rings true for adults, when giving money for a wedding,
or to someone who starts a business, to the sick,
to the recovered, for funerals, etc.

Money is always given in a kinpu, a gift-envelope.
These envelopes for the more official occasions are large enough
that large bills fit in unfolded.

Dirty used money is better not given,
usually you want to give crisp money fresh from the bank.

Yes, that's right,
I often hear of people going to the bank for that purpose to get
some freshly printed bills for their gift.

The bills are put into the envelope all facing the same side.
Then the envelope is closed just by folding it the right way,
so no glue or tape.

Every occasion has some rules about the type of
knots that close the envelope.
Beware, even when there is no need for knots,
they are printed, and are equally important when printed.

Some envelopes have not only the knot,
but a complete flower made from the knot.
Or a crane, which represents good luck and a long life.

But when choosing such gorgeous envelopes,
the amount inside shouldn't be a mismatch either.


Even for your humble tea leaves and rice cracker gift,
make sure the shops put it into a shopping bag with the store's name and logo.
Even if it's a rejibukuro, a thin plastic shopping bag, it's better to give it in the bag.

However, the more expensive retailers will put it in
pretty chique-looking paper bag with 2 twines as a handle.

If your travel or the weather will make the bag look dirty,
some of the better shops will give an unspoiled bag and pack it with the gift in another bag,
so that after your arrival you can present it as neatly presented as possible.

If you have 5 gifts, they will give 5 extra bags for after arrival.
For your immaculate gift.

Some of those paper bags enjoy high-recognition,
such as the Takashimaya store.

Business travel

When you go to Tokyo for your work every week,
gifts are not expected.

When dropping in 15 minutes to a customer,
gifts aren't expected either.
But when you visit a whole day to another company,
in another area of Japan, a small gift is nice.

Usually individually wrapped sweets or snacks, okashi in Japanese,
that will be put on the lunch table,
or somewhere the employees can take them any time later that day or week.

It’s just a small token, no one is really going to mention it,
but it shows a little bit of care.

When the purpose of business travel is to
enter into partnership, investment, expanding with a new office, or such,
there ultimately is also some exchange of more considerable gifts.

Usually this is done to the nominal leader,
not to the people doing the leg-work.

The timing of this is quite intricate,
it’s usually at the final meeting where the relationship is formalized,
but here it’s wisest to consult your daily contact about
what is appropriate and when.

Gifts for this occasion are often decorative.
Intriguing objects, paintings, a precious stone,
some folding screen, or a piece of pottery...

But if you come from abroad,
or still have a strong connection with your own country,
you might want to give a similar thing of similar value,
but with a foreign touch, that would be most welcome.

I’ve seen these gifts received from Japanese companies
in executive rooms around the world.

For this “formalizing-the-relationship” gift,
please give something that the president will
proudly display in his/her personal office.

Be considerate

Japanese corporations send
employees out all over the world to conduct business.

In their absence their offices will take care of them from a distance,
and assist them, or even delegate part of their day task to others.

To show a bit of gratitude, the employee coming back will bring cookies,
sweets, anything as a gift.

These gifts are usually purchased at airport souvenir shops,

If you’re in this situation,
please don’t buy the supermarket roll of 15 cookies broken and
crumbled at arrival, that will lose their crispiness in a day due to
Japan’s humid climate, and it looks so cheap.

Make the price of the gift relative to how much trouble you caused,
and relative to the price of the country.

500 yen spent in Mexico buys you a better gift than in Norway.
If in doubt, go for the looks of it.

But seriously I’ve seen expats taking a 2nd holiday in a busy time of the year,
delegating their responsibilities to others,
coming back with supermarket quality Easter-egg chocolates.
It's insulting, and can lose you a good deal of good-will.

Return some thanks

Many more occasions more require a gift.

Here it's not my intention to cover all cases.
But I want to draw your attention to one more remarkable part of the gift giving.
It's the thank you note.

In the past this would be hand-written on a nice paper with seasonal design,
in accompanying envelope, confirming the arrival of the present,
and also expressing due thanks.

In the age of tracking codes,
the confirmation part is not so important any more,
but expressing thanks in some form or another would be nice,
be it through SMS, a phone call or else.

In some cases the receiver is obviously busy,
like when sending a gift to sick people, or to newlyweds,
or a newlyborn gift (after it's born).

The patient, the pair,
or the parents are too busy to immediately thank appropriately,
but after a small period of time they might send some gift back,
with a thank you note.

The gift back should be somewhere near half the value of the original gift.

In some cases people select something for their friends,
but as they are busy, they often use a professional service.
You just give them your address book, and all is taken care of.

This service then often sends a gift catalogue to the person to be thanked.

The person can select any item from there. From neckties,
to kitchen appliances and interior decoration, to food items, etc.

After you select an item, it's delivered.

Funeral-goers often give some money to the family of the deceased.
The family usually sends back a gift, with this catalogue system.

Are you now fully familiar with
the Japanese terms below?

Are you now fully familiar with the Japanese terms below?
If not, go back and read again :)

・omedetai おめでたい

・osewani-narimashita おせわになりました お世話になりました

・ochugen おちゅうげん お中元

・oseibo おせいぼ お歳暮

・soumen そうめん

・otoshidama おとしだま お年玉

・kinpu-u きんぷう 金封

・osenbei おせんべい お煎餅

・reji-bukuro れじぶくろ レジ袋

・okashi おかし お菓子

・omiyage おみやげ お土産

・omiyage-yasan おみやげ やさん お土産屋さん

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This article was written by Otto van Wijngaarden / CALN instructor

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