Culture

A Quick Guide: Gift Giving in Japan – Dos and Don’ts

With a rich culture, history and several ancient legends, there are plenty of superstitions to be aware of when giving gifts in Japan. Whether you need to send gifts to Japan to thank a host or want to send a gift basket to a business partner, there are things you need to know.

gift giving in Japan

Numbers, colors and even printed animals can all accidentally offend someone if you don’t know what they mean. Below is a quick guide to help you find the perfect gift for every occasion.

 

Numbers to Avoid

If you have to send a gift never involve the numbers 4, 9 and 43 (e.g. don’t send four pieces of cake).

  • FOUR: 4 (四、し、shi) can sound like the word death (死、し、 shi)
  • NINE: 9 (九、く、ku) can sound like suffering (苦、く、ku)
  • FOURTYTHREE: if it’s for a baby shower, 43 (四三、しさん、shisan) is similar to stillbirth (死産、しざん, shizan).

To be on the save side, better avoid anything that has a “4” or “9” in it. ;)

 

Animals to Incorporate Into the Gift

Now that you know what numbers to avoid, there are some things you can use to help add more meaning to your gift by using specific animals on the wrapping paper or on the actual gift itself.

  • Butterflies can mean joy and longevity.
  • Carp can mean good fortune and faithfulness.
  • Cranes are perfect for weddings since they mean longevity and good fortune.
  • Swallows or a swallow’s tail can represent good luck.
  • Turtles can mean longevity making them ideal for baby showers.

 

Be Careful With Colors

Although you may write with black ink in your own country, when signing a gift card in Japan, you may want to change your pen. Colors have a lot of meaning and are something to be cautious of. Same goes for the color of the gift wrapping. Here is a quick guide on what you may or may not use color wise.

  • Red is used on tombstones. Do not use it for signing cards. Also, don’t send red Christmas cards as funeral notices are red in Japan. Red and white gift wrapping is good for weddings, though.
  • Black can mean death or bad luck. Black combined with red expresses sexuality, so try to avoid it.
  • Green can mean eternity and good luck. It is perfect for almost any gift card.
  • White can mean holiness. If the card is a solid color, white ink can be perfect for a baby shower.
  • Purple can mean celebrations and decadence. It is a great color for a festive holiday.

 

Etiquette for Gift Giving in Japan

The exchange of gifts is a central part of business etiquette and of Japanese culture in general. Whether it is for your boss, coworkers or friends, there are a few things you should know.

 

When to Give a Gift?

There are many occasions when you’re expected to give a gift in Japan.

You’ve probably heard about the “giri choco” on Valentine’s Day. There’s the typical “omiyage” (お土産) that you’re supposed to bring back from your trip. Gifts are also exchanged towards the end of the year (oseibo, お歳暮) to express indebtedness and midyear (ochugen, お中元) to show one’s gratitude. These kind of presents are exchanged among teachers, students, coworkers and business partners. You are expected to reciprocate if someone gives you one.

If you’re invited to somebody’s home, you always should bring a little present with you (e.g. cake, cookies or flowers).

And of course, there are the typical occasions we have in other countries as well such as Christmas, birthdays, weddings etc.

 

Giving and Receiving

Carry the gift in a normal shopping bag, so nobody will know immediately that you bring a present.

When handing it over, do it with both hands (also when receiving it). If it is for an individual, you need to do it in private and you want to give it to the person towards the end of your visit, not in the beginning like in the USA.

It’s very common to present a gift with the words “Tsumaranai mono desu ga …” (つまらないものですが・・・, lit.: It’s something boring, but please accept it …). It just shows that the relationship is more important than the present itself.

If you receive a present, don’t open it right away. Do it later when you’re alone, so you don’t have to worry about how to react if you don’t like it.

Also, it’s polite if you reject the present humbly once or twice. But don’t overdo it!

Always wrap a present beautifully. Let the shop do it where you purchased it.
The presentation and meaning of the gift are more important than the gift itself so make sure there is thought behind it.

Most of these rules don’t apply when you give a present to a (close) friend or family member of yours. It’s a much more casual situation after all.

 

What Kind of Gifts are Best?

If you visit a Japanese company, your host family or meet with Japanese business partners, this question always pops up.

Food (especially sweets like cake, cookies etc.) from your region are very welcome. For women flowers can be nice, but avoid white flowers, lotus blossoms, lilies and camellias since they are associated with funerals. Also, potted plants are associated with sickness, so better look for something else.

High-quality alcohol or pens as well as business-card holders are also a nice idea. For business gifts it can be on the expensive side, but never have your own company’s logo on it!

If you’re visiting your host family, then anything that’s typical for your region / country (especially if it’s edible) is the best choice.

 

With thousands of years of culture, history and superstition, Japan is a country where things may mean more than you think. That’s why it is important to know about the dos and don’ts of Japanese gift giving. By using the guide above you should be able to find a perfect gift for any occasion – and hand it over without any faux-pas.

Today’s Guest Blogger:
guest blogger
Adam is a blogger who loves to travel the world and see different shows, learn cultures and customs. Having been to more than 20 countries and with a love of theatre, he’s come across various superstitions when it comes to gift giving.

 

Disclaimer:
“A Quick Guide: Gift Giving in Japan – Dos and Don’ts” is a guest post and any information and opinion is provided by Adam. Therefore Zooming Japan doesn’t take any responsibility for the content.

21 Comments

  • There’s a lot here I didn’t know. Only one thing I noticed though: Be careful with alcohol in Japan. A lot of Japanese can’t drink alcohol as they lack the enzyme to dissolve it properly. So unless you already drank alcohol with that person better go for something else. Be also careful to mention when sweets contain alcohol :)

    • You’re right about the alcohol, but tell that all the salarymen out there who drink nevertheless. *g*

      I can only speak for my coworkers, but they love chocolate that contains alcohol. ^__^

  • What a wonderfully informative and interesting post Jasmine, and thanks Adam for your time and effort in providing this guest post. I was very surprised when I read this post, but not shocked. I’ve always known that the Japanese can take an affront to the smallest things and are very refined and dignified in their social customs. It’s one of the more interesting things about their culture. They do seem like a very superstitious people though.

    Jasmine, this post is exactly the kind of thing that would make a great topic for discussion in a “Gaijin Decoded” book. In my last post on Ken’s site, I once again suggested that you and he collaborate on writing a book to see if you can help one another. You probably can write a book on your own, but I think working with Ken could be a real enlightening experience. It might be difficult to work out the enumerable details of such a collusion (to decipher the Japanese secret plan to oppress the Foreign devils), but I think you should at least talk it over before you dismiss it too readily. I really think a lot of you two and hope that you can find a way to help each other to prosper and grow as the talents that you both are!

    BTW, you are the first person I’m telling this too: I’m a grandfather now… last night in the wee hours of the morning, my son’s wife delivered an unexpected surprise. She was told their child as going to be a girl, but instead to our great amazement, I now have a grandson. There goes the investment on girls clothes, furniture and presents from relatives, but I actually couldn’t be happier. Maybe he won’t mind wearing a lot of pink things for a few years…LOL! He’s going to be the first of his generation to carry on the family name and I couldn’t be happier. I only hope that I will be able to stay healthy long enough to help raise him to be a decent HUMAN being.

    Laterz J and Adam

    • Wow, Bud, great new! Congrats! ^___^
      And thanks for sharing those news with me. :)

      Hehe, you’re too kind. I’m not a good writer at all, especially not compared to Ken, so I doubt we will ever work together.
      While I’m sure that Ken will publish a lot of books, I doubt I ever will. And if then we’re talking about a photo book. ;)

      • I appreciate the congrats J and look forward to being called a gramps soon. Can’t wait for the first time the little one talks. Actually, I think I’m gonna want him to call me “Packo”, its what I called my grandfather, though I don’t know the reason. I do like it though.

        BTW, you have all the traits (that he might be lacking in) that could help Ken to write the “Gaijin Decoded” book:

        1. Inside track on tourism and geography of Japan.
        2. Architect’s eye for structure, form and function.
        3. Supreme organizational skills.
        4. Attention to detail and great work ethic.
        5. Working knowledge and a superlative understanding of all things “Kawai”.

        All of these elements will be very helpful to Ken if he wants to create the “Gaijin Decoded” Bible. For it to be commercially successful, you should market it to the tourist first, but it must also be interesting to the Japanofiles around the world. It has to be done with humor also and have lots of pretty pictures and photographs. The most important element will probably be telling the story from an individuals point of view detailing what it is like to visit Japan: taken in a linear fashion from getting the Visa to get to Japan… all the way to returning on the plane to go back home.

        Sections on sightseeing in the book could start from the idea that the person is going to want to start in Tokyo, but then branch out to talk about other destinations or areas based on the appeal of that prefecture/area. You could take into account the possibility that the individual might want to extend their visit and explain the ins and outs to them of trying to get a job or interact socially while travelling. The key to the “Gaijin Decoded” title will be to try and steer people into understanding what is the most entertaining and safe way for a foreigner to travel around Japan while having the best time with the fewest number of mishaps (like how you explained the bus schedules, costs of fees and waiting times or seasonal circumstances at the different sites posted in your Blog) … or possibly what will be required to extend a visit in Japan or to apply for employment (like Ken has explained on his blog). Educating people on the honorifics system and ways to avoid insulting the Japanese should have a really high priority too. Background info on food, customs, and costs could help many potential visitors whether or not to decide to visit Japan in the first place and therefore you want to make this first “Gaijin Decoded” book something that the Japan tourist industry will approve of. You’ll want to give prospective Japanofiles a way to learn a working knowledge of the language by pointing them to various teaching resources or methods of learning and give them a plan to develop knowledge of conversational Japanese, like Ken has done in his blog. The basic recent history of Japan (like the Tsunami and nuclear disaster affected areas you talked about once) and some info about the culture could come in handy too, especially the social “Do’s and Don’ts” lists you both have talked about in the past (even dating tips). Telling them when the stormy seasons occur and the best times to visit certain areas are important and even knowing the prevailing winds/ temperatures might help them avoid that orange pollution that comes over from China each season. Once you finish the first “Gaijin Decoded”, you’ll possibly have many reasons to create regular and extended volumes of the book in the future; to include different areas of Japan, more detailed language skills that can be learned, maybe explaining the Gaijin ceiling in the work force… and even more culture and pics from around Japan, as well as special festivals and annual events (like you have shown on your blog). The hardest thing about writing such a book will be to limit the scope on the first volume to keep the task reasonable. Ken is the master at saying a lot with very few words yet he still makes it sound great and imparts a lot of emotion, but his skills will be put to the test in writing such a book too. Don’t sell yourself short Jasmine, because this book will probably take too long to write for one person. You might get Ken to agree to you each writing specific sections and dividing up the work that way; BUT, even if you both just talk about it and think of the possibilities, it will be good for both of you to get the creative juices flowing and might possibly lead to one or both of you writing a book of your own on a limited scope subject that could later be included in a “Gaijin Decoded” book, who knows. I just think that both Ken’s talents and your’s might compliment each other very well. I’m sorry I’m so presumptive and nosy, but it’s a fault of mine that when I like people, I try to encourage them. At least take my intrusions from the positive standpoint that you have a very appreciative fan of your work on Zooming!

        P.S. You might get sponsorship (paid to write it if the outline is REAL GOOD) on writing the “Gaijin Decoded” book, if the first volume is approved by the Japanese Tourist industry.

        • You’re really too sweet. I don’t even know what to say!
          I can’t believe how much thought you already gave it.

          I guess I lack both self confidence and time, but it’s so good to see that I have such great supporters out there.
          Really, THANK YOU!!! ;___;

  • I am from the US and would like to send a gift for Golden Week to someone with whom I have a business relationship. Do you have any suggestions?

    • If you have any good brands from the US of business card holders or even pens, maybe that would be a good idea.
      Generally food or (expensive) alcohol would be a good idea as well, but there are just too many restrictions when sending those.

  • A smart and concise roundup of gift-giving etiquette. I think I’ll stick with my purple and pink pens for writing cards lol.
    You mentioned presentation is important with wrapped gifts. If I’m bringing a little something from my country, what’s suggested for presentation? We don’t really ‘wrap’ gifts here, so much as put things in open decorative bags, often with colorful tissue/crepe paper protruding from the bag’s opening. I would think that our regular wrappings for occasions such as birthdays and Christmas might look a little ‘cheap’ to a Japanese gift receiver, as they tend to be just decorative paper tightly folded around the gift. Any suggestions?

    • Anything is fine as long as you show them that you put some effort into it.
      Transparent plastic bags with some wrapping are also nice.
      If you have to bring it in your luggage, then wrap it in a way that will not be screwed up when transported.
      Any gift wrapping will do, but of course it shouldn’t be themed (birthday, Christmas) when it’s out of season. ;)

  • Hello. I am from India. I’m going to meet a professor in Tokyo University, Japan. What are some of the gift ideas from India?

    • I’ve never been to India before, so I don’t know what you guys have there.
      However, food or something that represents your region is always a nice souvenir. ;)

      • May I suggest samosas? Everyone loves them, but you might pick a mild/less spicy one. The heat can sometimes be very hot lol.

  • Hi, I wanted to ask you about gifts for women, in Japan. Specifically – Geishas. I am visiting Japan next year and I booked a short dinner with a Maiko. Is it acceptable to give Maiko a small gift? I was thinking of jewelry. Nothing expensive or extravagant but a small bracelet from, let’s say Pandora series. Is that acceptable or should I not do it. Thanks.

    • Hi Albert,
      Unfortunately I’ve never dealt with geisha, so I simply don’t know.
      I think I’d feel awkward to get a present, but if it’s something tiny (food / sweets might be good), I guess it might be ok.
      Not sure if they’re used to getting presents from their guests..

  • Thanks for the interesting information in the original post. I was wondering how to give gifts when you stay at someone’s home. I feel like giving the gifts at the end of my stay would make them think I don’t plan to give them anything at all for the longest time. I assume the rule of giving toward the end of a visit only applies to short visits?

    • Well, personally I often hand it over at the beginning, especially if it’s food, but it’s really totally up to you when to hand it over. :)
      That’s for short visits, though.

      For host family-like situations I’d also hand it over towards the beginning, but maybe that’s just me. ;)

  • Hello, for the gift wrapping portion, is blue a good color or like a cardboard color with decorations okay?

    • Japanese people generally like nicely wrapped gifts. It can be handmade – or if it’s just really cute that will work, too.
      For normal presents, colors are not so important. :)