We all love to get presents, especially when they come from an unexpected or seemingly unlikely source. So, I was pleasantly surprised last month when I arrived at one of my schools and found a big bag of fresh apricots (something of a local delicacy here in Nagano) on my desk.
I soon found out that this lovely gift had come from the friendly — yet somewhat uncommunicative — teacher who sits opposite me in the teacher’s room. Apparently her garden has a number of apricot trees and everyone got a bag of the delicious fruit that day.
That night as I sat back on my sofa, eating an apricot and catching up on some Netflix, I thought to myself: “I must get that teacher something nice when I go back to Scotland for Christmas.” Then the quandary hit me: What could I buy for this person? She’s a sweet woman, but beyond nodding and saying good morning to her once a week in the teacher’s room, I know absolutely nothing about her.
Welcome, friends, to the world of omiyage, or souvenirs, Japan’s unique approach to gift giving that can be, at times, quite baffling.
Anyone who has been in Japan for any length of time — and plenty of the online, self-appointed authorities on the country and culture who haven’t — will tell you that the group dynamic is a fundamental underpinning of Japanese society. One way this collectivist approach manifests most obviously is with the idea of gifts. When someone in the school goes on holiday, they usually bring back a small present for everyone on the staff. It’s also generally accepted conduct that when someone gives you a gift, you should reciprocate at the next opportunity. With everyone in the office included in this ritual, as we are all part of the same team, the cycle ever revolves. As such, one has to tread very carefully when buying gifts. You need to consider everyone within your group, not just the ones with whom you are especially friendly.
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