Gift Giving Culture

Omiyage: one of the most important words in the Japanese language. Gifts from abroad, gifts from nearby, gifts for special occasions, gifts for no reason at all. The Japanese are well-known for their culture of gift exchange. I don’t think they are unique in their love of gifts, but they do make sure that they have things to give friends and co-workers when the time is appropriate. Whenever one goes on a trip and it is known to others around them, bringing souvenirs back really does  grease the wheels of their social relationships and it is almost expected, though almost paradoxically without any sense of entitlement. It just feels nice to bring little pieces of the world back to your friends, and on the other end, to know that those around you care about you.

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Almost everywhere you go in Japan, and certainly every major city, has its own specialty food that you can bring back and share with people. Pictured above is a box of Hiroshima’s famous momiji manju, small maple leaf-shaped cakes filled with sweet red bean paste.

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A box of langue de chats from Onomichi, made with the citrus that thrives in the area.

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Yes, sometimes it seems that the packaging is just as important as the snacks themselves. Snacks are almost always individually-wrapped in nice packaging so they can be passed out to individuals in large groups (i.e. offices).

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Sapporo’s Shiroi Koibito, (white chocolate langue de chat). One of the most popular omiyage in all of Japan.

It’s really nice being a part of this never-ending gift exchange. I think a part of why we don’t give gifts out in America to the extent at which the Japanese do is because we have a tendency to see those who give gifts out as “sucking up,” and perhaps this is what people in the West are actually doing most of the time. We constantly have our eyes our for “bullshitters,” and indeed they do abound. But perhaps it is the negative perceptions that we have towards such people that adulterates the purity of their actions; at least in part. From what I have seen in Japan, because giving gifts is almost expected, it seems that these negative perceptions don’t really take place, on either end of the exchange. I enjoy this dynamic.

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