For Western expats living in Japan, the frequency and occasions for giving and receiving gifts may be surprising. Not only are gifts given between loved ones and friends as is the case in most cultures around the world, but they are routinely given within Japanese businesses and between corporate partners and clients.
Keep reading to learn essential information about Japanese gift giving etiquette, ideas on appropriate gifts for Japanese businesspeople, and what to say when giving and receiving a gift in a corporate setting. Read Gift Giving in Japan and Luxury Japanese Gifts to learn about Japanese gift occasions and exclusive gifts.
While Japan has adopted and redefined holidays like Valentine’s Day and Christmas, there are two traditional Japanese gift giving seasons - Ochugen(お中元) and Oseibo(お歳暮) - that have been a part of the country’s culture since long before the popularization of Western holidays.
The tradition of ochugen coincides with the summer festival known as obon, which is normally recognized on July 15 in Kanto (eastern Japan) and August 15 in Kansai (western Japan). There are some exceptions to these dates, but you will usually find that most companies begin sending gifts a couple weeks before. The purpose of this custom is to show gratitude, which may include co-workers and supervisors within your place of employment, and the value of the gift is reflective of the gratitude you wish to show (though it is important to remember that the gesture means more than the gift itself).
As the end of the year approaches, homes and business throughout Japan once again take up the annual gift giving tradition known as oseibo. Expats working for Japanese companies will often find an increase of confections being handed out around the office in the first half of December as partner companies, clients, and even competitors show their appreciation and respect through culinary gifts. Oseibo gifts are meant to pay back favors received over the previous year (a slightly different purpose than ochugen); and as such, the gift’s value should be taken into consideration.
In general, international employees need not worry about coordinating gifts between corporate entities. However, because gifts are an important part of Japan’s business culture even within the office, there will be time when a gift will be greatly appreciated by your co-workers and supervisors.
If you are visiting Japan on business to meet with a client or international branch office, you will likely be treated to Japan’s famous hospitality throughout your stay. You can reciprocate this gracious gesture by bringing something of unique value from your home country. Prior to leaving for your trip, considerations should be made regarding who you will meet during your stay and whether or not it is appropriate to give a gift.
Often a Japanese corporation will assign an employee to assist you throughout your trip, so it is best to give a personal gift that would be appropriate for an office setting like a high-quality pen or business card holder. When shopping for the gift, choosing a respected brand name from your home country will likely be well-received. In addition, it is also appropriate to offer a gift for the department or company as a whole (depending on the size). When choosing a group gift, it is usually safe to present shelf-stable local or regional confections or snacks from your home country that can be easily shared within the office. As with all gift giving in Japan, presentation and wrapping is important, so take this into consideration before your trip.
If you live and work in Japan and find yourself traveling within the country for business or pleasure, omiyage (best described as edible souvenirs) is a common gift to give in the office when you return, especially if your trip is work related. Most major train stations offer wrapped boxes of omiyage featuring famous snacks and confections that the city or region is known for within Japan. Examples include the famous Tokyo Banana, Kyoto’s traditional Yatsuhashi, and Cheese tarts from Sapporo featuring Hokkaido dairy products.
When working for a Japanese company, you may find yourself invited to a coworker’s wedding or in some unfortunate cases a funeral. In both instances, a gift of money is the only appropriate option. It can be difficult to know how much money is appropriate, but in most cases asking another coworker will give you the best answer. Beside the wedding gift (goshugi), the funeral gift (koden), and the special envelopes the money must be placed in, there are many additional rules of etiquette that should be followed in these two ceremonies, which we cover in greater detail in the links below.
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In Japan, much symbolism can be derived from the color and style of the gift wrapping, and as such it is often best left to the professionals. When buying a gift, it’s common for omiyage shops and department stores to offer the option of gift wrapping your package if it is not already pre-wrapped. It is best to have the store wrap the gift for you by saying, “purezento nanode, rappingu o onegaishimasu” (Please wrap it as a gift).
When presenting a gift in the office to an individual, consider the timing: for superiors, present when first meeting and for co-workers, present after any necessary discussion has died down. If you are offering a gift of high value, you will want to practice saying, “it isn't much, but please accept this gift” or in Japanese: “dōzo osame kudasai” (どうぞお納め下さい); but if it is a more casual setting with a coworker, you can say, “I thought you might like this,” which is a rough translation of the Japanese: “yokattara moratte kudasai” (良かったらもらってください). In either case it is important to present the gift to the recipient with both hands.
In Japan, it is considered rude to offer or accept something with just one hand, so be mindful of this.
Receive the gift with both hands and respond by saying “thank you very much” or in Japanese: “arigatō gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます). It is also customary to wait until after the giver has left your sight before opening the gift. Or, you can of course ask "Can I open it now?" or in Japanese: "Ima aketemo iidesuka?" (いま開けてもいいですか？).
While traditional etiquette is expected to be followed between the majority of native Japanese businesspeople, international employees are often not bound by the same gift giving customs. However, with that being said, knowing the information above and doing the unexpected can leave a lasting impression among your Japanese superiors, co-workers, and clients.
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