How to give like a Tokyoite

Written by
Yusuf Huysal

As you may have heard, gift-giving is a big deal in Japan and, when it comes to etiquette, there is no give and take. To avoid rifts when exchanging gifts, here's what you need to know.


Long before Santa Claus came to town, Japan had Oseibo – the traditional gift-giving season. Oseibo gifts are exchanged in December as expressions of gratitude to those who have helped you during the year. While Xmas has largely supplanted the age-old custom, it is still in vogue among the older generations. Make your obaachan (granny) happy with a pack of fancy fruit, ornately wrapped cookies or a few fine bottles of sake.


It is often said that Japan has a chronic case of tetraphobia – the fear of things that come in fours – because one of two readings for the number is shi, which is homonymic with the word for death (死). While the taboo no longer seems to be that relevant, it’s best not to give your loved one a quartet of white chrysanthemum blossoms – the flowers are associated with funerals.


In the 1950s, Japanese confectionery companies began advertising heart-shaped chocolates leading up to Valentine’s Day. Somewhere along the way, however, a supposed translation error in one of the ads led to the assumption that only men are on the receiving end. Hence, on February 14, Japanese women treat their male co-workers to giri-choco (obligation chocolate) in addition to the honmei-choco (favourite chocolate) given to their loved ones. In the 1970s, the National Confectionery Industry Association milked the cow dry by establishing White Day, giving men the chance to reciprocate the gift a month later on March 14.


While often translated as ‘souvenirs’, omiyage gifts are not intended for your own consumption but are brought back to friends, family and co-workers who couldn't join you on a trip. If you’re unsure about what to buy, go for regional delicacies and local products, and remember that kitsch is king. Those ‘I Love Hokkaido’ rice cakes will be a hit at the office.


Japanese gift-giving is like a good magic trick: the reveal is the most important bit. Conjuring up an elaborately wrapped gift from its hiding place inside an inconspicuous konbini bag requires more sleight of hand than the old rabbit out of the hat. When presenting the gift, do so with both hands accompanied by the phrase tsumaranai mono desu ga (meaning ‘it’s not much’). Don't be taken aback if your gift is refused as this is a show of politeness and may be repeated once or twice before eventual acceptance.


Though you may have been told otherwise, it’s not always what’s on the inside that counts. In Japanese gift-giving, the presentation of a gift is as important as its contents, if not more so. A great deal of care and effort (often by store clerks) goes towards wrapping the gift with pastel-coloured papers or traditional furoshiki cloth and adorning it with ribbons. Bear in mind that combining black and red wrapping paper can apparently convey a suggestive message. And they say romance is dead.

Illustration by Bunny Bissoux

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