Sunday, December 29, 2013

Memories of Japan: Gift-Giving Season

Today is Sunday, December 29, 2013.

There are two main gift-giving seasons in Japan.  One is at midsummer, and the other is at year end.  Both of them drove me a little crazy.  Gift-giving in Japan is so fraught with custom and expectation that it can be like a land-mine for foreigners.  My experience brought me to the point where I am seriously nervous about receiving gifts at all, even today.
Notice that she's carrying the package in
her left hand.

Since both midsummer gift season (o-chūgen お中元) and year-en gift season (oseibō お歳暮) work the same way, I'll explain both at the same time.  Midsummer gifts are given on July 15 in the Kanto area (Eastern Japan, including Tokyo, Kamakura, and Yokohama), and on August 15 in the Kansai region (Western Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe).  Year-end gifts are given on or around December 20.  If you choose to give only one gift per  year, it is given at year end.

You always carry packages this way when you are
wearing a kimono.
These gift-giving seasons are not holidays or celebrations; rather, they're expressions of a Japanese sense of giri, or obligation.  The sense of obligation is huge in Japanese culture, a weight under which everyone lives from birth to the grave.  The Japanese like to say that these gifts are debts of gratitude, but a lot of individual Japanese, when speaking strictly for themselves, rather than for their culture, will tell you that these gifts are more of a formality than a true expression of gratitude.  The standard way they are sold, chosen, and presented illustrates how much of a formality (as opposed to an expression of the heart) they really are.  One doesn't give handmade things or items of sentimental value on these occasions.  The gifts are strictly practical, and all of them are store-bought.

Midsummer and year-end gifts are given to doctors, teachers, your boss, certain co-workers, clients, and anyone else that you feel (or "should feel") gratitude towards.  One lady told me that many doctors in Japan have one whole room in their home where they store presents like these, because they get so many.  I could well believe it.  

Two muskmelons, ¥10,000, about $95.00
As a teacher, I got a lot of presents from my private students.  Most of the gifts were things like cooking oil, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, green tea, and selections of fruit.  One year I got two huge muskmelons.  You have to understand that melons are insanely expensive in Japan, and two huge ones must have cost the person at least 10,000 yen.  At that price (and at the exchange rate at the time), I calculated that if you cut the melon up into a certain number of bite-size pieces, it was about 50 cents per bite.  Seriously.  When I got the melons, the first thing I did was give one to my neighbor across the hall, Mrs. Tanaka.  She cut hers in half and gave half to her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Isegawa. Everybody had a few bites.  I once got a Sony Walkman from a doctor's wife; that was the most thoughtful present I ever got, and I used the heck out of it.  

Student giving teacher a monetary gift
I also got monetary gifts at midsummer and year-end, and I'm talking big money, here.  I used to haul in anywhere from $600 to $1500 from various people.  The money was always given in a special envelope.  (They don't like to handle cash, probably an idea that had its beginnings in the fact that merchants were the lowest class of people in Japan during the feudal era, and merchants are the ones who handle money the most.)

In English, we often say, "It's the thought that counts," but that's not necessarily true in Japan.  The value of the gift is important, too.  The value of midsummer and year-end gifts in Japan is supposed to be in proportion to the "debt" of gratitude you feel you (should) owe, as well as to the importance of the relationship in your life.  Gifts are generally priced anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000 yen, but the average gift costs about 3,000 yen.  (At today's exchange rate, ¥2,000 is just over $19 and ¥100,000 is just over $950.   ¥3000 would be a little under $30.  Obviously, if there's a doctor who has saved your life, you're going to give him as expensive a gift as you can afford. A business client whom you wish to impress would also get a fairly pricy gift.  During my time in Japan, I often got gifts ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 yen, but then, back then, the economy was booming.  Things are a little different now, with Japan's economy still wallowing in a long-term slump. 

I particularly appreciated gifts such as dried mushrooms and fruit.
What I got a lot of, though, was fancy soap.  I had so many bars
of soap that I never had to buy any of my own, ever.
How do you choose an appropriate gift?  Simple.  Go to any big department store and there will be an entire floor dedicated solely to midsummer or year-end gifts. If you're an American businessman who wants to impress Japanese clients, appropriate gifts include expensive cuts of beef, hothouse fruit, and alcohol such as brandy, quality whiskey and Bourbon, or a bottle of wine. (These things are all associated with foreigners.)  If you go to a Japanese department store, all you have to do is pick a gift in a given price range.  The store will take care of sending it for you, or they will do the wrapping so all you have to do is present the gift.  Japanese people particularly appreciate gifts from high-end department stores such as Saks and Neiman Marcus, and of course, these stores will also wrap and send gifts for you. Gift certificates are also OK.  There's a trick to the presentation, though.

This noshigami is for a midsummer gift, from someone named Yamamoto.

Noshi for gifts
On top of the gift package, the giver puts a thin paper called noshigami, decorated with a printed bow.  Actually the word noshi  (熨斗) means a ceremonial origami fold that is attached to gifts to express good wishes.  Nowadays, an image of noshi are printed right on the paper that goes around the gift.  Traditional noshi were white paper folded with a strip of dried abalone or dried meat, and considered a token of good luck. Now they seem to be red and gold, as well, and the dried fish or meat are left out.  Also, nowadays, the term noshi is generally used to mean the paper with images of a noshi and bow printed on it.   The presence of the bow comes from the fact that noshi were folded without any internal locks to keep the paper in that shape (unlike other origami designs).  Instead, a strip of paper or decorative cord was used to keep the folds in place.  The cord is called mizuhiki, usually a bundle of stiff string that is knotted in a decorative manner. Knotting a mizuhiki is an art form in itself.

The strings for mizuhiki are made of paper treated with a watery paste so that they will harden into a cord.  (The word mizu means "water.")  A dye is added to the paste to give the cords color.  Gold and silver cord is used for a high-class or quality event.  Red and white signifies a happy, good-luck event.  Black and white cord are used for funerals and burial ceremonies.  The colored cord is always tied so it is on the right and the white or silver is on the left.  

Mizuhiki knots
The way the knot is tied has meaning, too.  Musubikiri are tied tightly and not meant to be untied.  They are used for events which you wish to do once and never again, such as a wedding or a funeral.  Hanamusubi are a standard butterfly knot which can be tied and untied.  This knot is used for celebrations that occur again and again, such as birthdays and job promotions.  This is the sort of knot that is typically used for midyear and year-end gifts.  Awajimusubi are knots that are loosely wound into loops, so that if you pulled the ends of the cord, the loops would get smaller and closer together.  This knot is used to symbolize "growing together" (a business partnership or a wedding engagement), but it can also be used for get-well wishes because it involves "growing" better.

Loops are good luck symbols in Japan, because they are round, smooth, and come "full circle."  Cylindrical objects are bound with mizuhiki with one loop.  Flat packages use mizuhiki with two loops.  Wedding gifts typically have two or more loops.  For funerals, the loops are cut because there is nothing lucky about death.

Midsummer and year-end gifts are always wrapped with this noshigami paper that sometimes have a printed noshi and knot on it.  The word "o-seibo" or "o-chugen" is written above the bow, and the family name of the giver is written below the bow.

When you present a gift, you always tell the recipient that you are going to give them a gift. (Japanese people hate surprises.)  It's traditionally considered "modest" to tell the person that the gift isn't much.  A Japanese will give you an expensive and ostentatious gift, while saying, "Tsumaranai mono desu ga...," which is translated as, "This is just a trifle."

It's customary to refuse a gift a couple of times ("Oh, you shouldn't have...") but then accept with thanks.  The giver always gives the gift with both hands.  This is extremely important in Asia, even now.  The receiver always receives with both hands, as well.  Handing something to someone with one hand (even a business card) is considered inexcusably rude.  

Giving a gift while sitting on a tatami mat
If you are sitting on a tatami floor, you place the gift item (with both hands) on the mat directly in front of you, then slide it across the mat toward the person you are giving the gift to.  Obviously, you will not be sitting very far from the person when you do this, so there won't be any need to slide it all the way across the room.  You bow as you are sliding the gift toward the recipient.  The other person bows back but makes no move to receive the gift until it has been offered three times.  After that, the recipient pulls the package toward him/herself while thanking the giver profusely. The recipient then slides it to one side, using both hands, and the gift generally never leaves the mat.

Gift tied up in a traditional furoshiki
wrapping cloth
Japanese don't normally open a gift in front of the giver, but they will make an exception for foreigners, especially if you insist.  If it was o-chūgen or oseibō I never insisted.  If it was a birthday present, I sometimes exercised my right as a foreigner to be eccentric and asked them to open it right away.

The part about midsummer and year-end gifts that drove me crazy was trying to figure out how much I should spend based not so much on what I thought of the relationship, but what they thought, or what their expectation was.  As you may know if you have interacted for any length of time in a foreign culture, violating people's expectations is dicey business.  

The other thing that unnerved me was when I would get a particularly expensive or ostentatious gift from someone when it wasn't strictly warranted, which meant only one thing: they were planning to ask me for a favor soon, and they never seemed to forget this.  There was always a favor asked, and it was always inconvenient for me to grant it, which is why they gave me such a grandiose gift in the first place.  This happened so many times that I am now extremely sensitive to gifts given "for no reason" or gifts that seem over and above the norm.

Until the 1990s, gift-giving was still a huge part of the Japanese culture, but nowadays, it appears from checking around the web that oseibō gifts are no longer considered obligatory.  I hear that many Japanese under the age of 50 have never given or received an oseibō gift in their lives.  The younger set, especially in urban areas, seem to think that this is a custom that their parents do, but that it doesn't apply to their generation, or they think that their relatives in the country do this, but the citified folk don't.  It's true that the obligation part has begun to seem rather burdensome, and even 40 years ago, individuals used to complain a bit.  ("Just between you and me...") 

Furoshiki wrapping cloth tied "butterfly style"
In addition, the economy has tanked, and changing corporate norms have had an impact on the custom, as well.  Particularly for companies who deal with foreign firms, the exchange of gifts can sometimes be misinterpreted as a form of brown-nosing.  Tightened expense accounts have also had the effect of limiting purchases.  Many Japanese companies simply give calendars or datebooks, much like companies do in the West.

As well, technology has changed gift-giving customs.  Many people now order online from their computers or cell phones, and leave the delivery to the store.  It's no longer the thing to buy gifts in person, have them wrapped traditionally, then take them home and tie them up in a furoshiki (traditional carrying cloth), dress up in your best clothes (preferably kimono) and hand-deliver the gifts.  

There are other times when gifts are given in Japan, but I will leave these for another post. :-)

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