Here
and
Now

opinions

Navigating the intricacies of Japan’s gift-giving protocol

39 Comments
By Molly Desjardin

One sunny day in May 2008, I came home to find a large box of laundry detergent hanging from my door. After a moment of confusion — was it a gag gift or an early birthday present? — I realized it was from the church next door, which was soon to undergo renovation. I learned this after digging out a multipage flyer hidden under the detergent that explained, in excruciating detail, the steps the church would undergo: a tarping, various roof repairs, possibly some jackhammering. After I finished reading about the ordeal, I felt like the church deserved a gift of its own.

A month later, another gift arrived. This time, there was no mistaking it for real sentiment, just a token apology: a towel with a construction company’s name. Hello, we are building a grocery store next door! Sorry! Enjoy your towel! The work in question wasn’t being done right outside my balcony, so according to the standard inconvenience scale, it required nothing more than a 100 yen towel to wrap around my ears to drown out the hammering.

Stories like this make good entertainment for friends and family back home. But I got a new perspective on the system last month when, after losing my wallet, I found myself on the other side of the exchange.

A Japanese friend advised me that whoever found it would probably just keep the cash and throw the wallet away, because if they returned it to the police, they’d be required to provide their contact information. Why would they need to do that? For the "orei" — a gift of thanks. “This 'orei'… how much is it?” I asked. Ten percent, my friend replied without hesitation. Ten percent of the cash in the wallet.

When I picked up my happily intact wallet from the police the next day (“It looks like there are some nice people left in Tokyo after all!” my friend exclaimed), the officer ran through the etiquette of the "orei." He advised me to call first, as a formality. I should start by asking if I can send something; the person will say no, so I should then ask again. If they keep saying no, I can let it rest; if they say yes, negotiations ensue. They have the opportunity to name an amount, but if it’s too much more than 20%, I should refuse. If it’s too little, I should insist on giving them more. All of this despite the fact that we all know it’s going to end up as 10-20%.

I gathered up my courage to make the call. I hate to phone strangers even in my native language, let alone someone who in all likelihood was a neighborhood "ojiisan" mumbling in an Arakawa dialect unintelligible to anyone under 50. Fortunately, my benefactor turned out to be a middle-aged salaryman. Still at work at 8 p.m., he didn’t quite know what to do about the "orei" situation either. Our conversation was awkward: he wanted some cash, but obviously didn’t know how to ask for it and couldn’t bring himself to name a price. In the end, I wound up sending a stylish card with the appropriate amount tucked inside, prepared to put the experience behind me.

But you know what? The incident left me feeling strangely angry. Not because of having to send a thank-you gift, or because “The Man” expected me to pay money for my wallet. I am happy that I could send a gift to someone who was thoughtful enough to keep his hands off my love hotel and Book Off point cards, and the 200 yen on my Suica.

No, my problem was the memory of the unbelievable inconvenience caused by my new neighborhood grocery store. After three months of nonstop jackhammering, the grand opening kicked off a ceremonial week of screaming and blasting music, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. To this day, an employee is paid to stand under my balcony welcoming customers and warning them about passing cars, although thankfully he seems to have lost his voice now. And what did I get before the construction of this monstrosity? A blank towel. In other words, a big slap in the face.

Now, I may not have grown up with the "orei" chart grafted onto my brain, but thanks to the wallet experience, I know enough to tell when I’m being insulted. A towel? Come on! Just have an employee show up at my door, give me the finger, and be done with it already.

My salaryman friend and I may have been uncertain and uncomfortable with this complicated system — be grateful, but not too much! — but at least we had the good sense to use our human instincts. Despite our awkward exchange, we (like that poor church) went beyond the token efforts of a corporate robot to find our common ground.

Molly Des Jardin is a PhD/MSI candidate at the University of Michigan, artist, writer, photographer and future librarian. You can find her on the web at www.mollydesjardin.com

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

39 Comments
Login to comment

yes. gift giving in japan is taihen to say the least. when you receive a wedding gift you are expected to give a gift back at 50% of the value of which you received. same goes when someone passes away & you receive money. basically , you have to return a gift whenever receiving one. & don't forget to mention what a small gift it is ( even if it's a new car), but please accept it .

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The new grocery store is understandably an annoyance, but it won't do to not build grocery stores. Just what kind of gift would placate the writer? Though the monetary value of a towel is cheap, frankly I think it's good enough that the construction company recognized the inconvenience they'd be causing. That's more the point, to say they're sorry, than to actually compensate.

In the case of the wallet for example, I feel that expecting a significant percentage of reward money cheapens the kindness of returning it. It's just getting paid for a job done. Likewise, if the gift giver is simply following well established gift giving rules, it's not longer a sign of genuine appreciation. It's like just paying a bill.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

When we built our house, together with the house-maker sales guy, we did a complete tour of the neighbourhoud (read about 20 houses), saying hello, apologizing and leaving a tower and a pamphlet. The entire thing (bags of towels, etc) was prepared by the house maker, but I could bet it was still paid by us :)...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@ebisen - When we built our house, my FIL did the first rounds of the neighbourhood to soften up the neighbours to my foreigness. After we moved in, we did the 'hikosi soba' thing. Not everyone would even answer the door. We still have about 4 boxes. There are two houses on our block who refuse to talk to me...and I bet they're pissed they didn't get their soba.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

but it won't do to not build grocery stores

But it would do to have some logical neighborhood noise ordinances. It also might do to have some more targeted advertising (fliers with discount coupons) rather than doing it on the cheap, and annoying the neighbors.

They do this because they can get away with it. They can get away with it because most Japanese simply put up with it (shoganai) without any fuss.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I've never quite wrapped my head around the "giri"(obligation) thing. I was headed back home last winter and my supervisor presented me with a gift, and then flat-out requested something specific from my home country. I was a bit floored and more than a bit put out, because I was traveling with the baby and I had planned on traveling very light since I was carrying about 40 pounds of baby stuff (plus 20 pounds of baby!). I felt like I was being "guilted" into getting him what he wanted. If he'd just asked, "Would you mind getting me X when you're back home" I would have felt much more comfortable about it, rather than him giving me a gift I didn't want and then putting me in a position where I couldn't explain my situation and that the thing he wanted might have to come later by post.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Excellent article ! Thank you :)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

(“It looks like there are some nice people left in Tokyo after all!” my friend exclaimed

Pardon me? No I did not get what you were saying???

Overall a good article. Ms. Molly has a Love Hotel membership? That is an interesting thing :)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Every little part of Japanese culture is too complicated for me to understand

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I thought it was a well-written article (for a change).

It makes me think about the housing development that went up next door a couple of years ago. All the dust flying and the noise was enought to make anyone crazy, but they didn't even have the courtesy to say anything before they started. I don't expect a gift, but at least a 迷惑をかけます would be nice.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well, on the opposite side of things, in my home country it would be rude to request something if your wallet is found. It does cheapen the "good samaritan" aspect if reciprocation is automatically assumed in the process. I think maybe that's why Westerner's just don't bother with this huge elaborate gift giving. A gift is always better when it's never expected.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sometimes I think people, Japanese and foreign alike, really overblow the "mystery" of Japanese tradition.

Gift giving may be formalized in Japan, but in reality it works out just about the same as anywhere. If someone gives you a gift in the United States, no matter what the occassion, you are typically expected to give something in return. People sure would consider you an A-hole if they gave you a birthday gift and you didn't get something for them on their birthday.

And if you return someone's wallet or other lost valuable, there's no specific system in place, but a finder's fee or some token of gratitude is appreciated and at least half-expected.

In fact, it kind of burns me when Japanese people and Japanophiles talk down to westerners about traditions like they're something completely foreign to us. Accepting someone's business card with two hands is common sense when the person giving it is using two hands too. And keeping it on the table til the end of the meeting is something I would do out of politeness without being told. What do they expect me to do with it? Crumple it up and throw it over my shoulder?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We have just moved house and rather than the traditionl snacks that get shoved in a cupboard and dumped when they are past their sell-by date, I thought I would be clever and get beautiful sets of glass-cup scented candles and give them to the neighbours with a little introductory note. Nice, I thought.

But my first mistake apparently was that Japanese associate candles with death - even spiced apple, ocean breeze and cool vanilla ones. My second was assuming our neighbours would even be remotely interested in getting to know us. The guy next door studiously ignored his doorbell until we finally bumped into them going into their place-it was awkward to say the least-and virtually forced the present on them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Ah kirakira - it seems like you live in my neighbourhood!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

kirakira: LOL! Thanks for sharing!

To me, giving a gift should have nothing (or at least little) to do with obligation. Sure, we Westerners tend to give gifts to people on birthdays and anniversaries and other special occasions but generally I think we give a gift because we want to, not because we have to. If you have to give a gift then it really isn't a gift at all; just another obligation. A gift should come from the heart, not the head.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Every little part of Japanese culture is too complicated for me to understand

I think that sums up over half the foreigners here. The problem is they don't try hard enough to learn or give up too easily. Heck, I'm still learning, and I'm enjoying it. These days I'm finding out that I know more than most young Japanese people about this stuff.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Every little part of Japanese culture is too complicated for me to understand

Thepro was being sarcastic I'm sure. Anyway with even the slightest bit of intelligence can understand all the world's customs.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

These days I'm finding out that I know more than most young Japanese people about this stuff.

I think most people know more about Japanese tradition than Japanese young people.

The thing about tradition is the natives think it's optional for them, while still expecting strict observance from outsiders.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Great article; Molly, I've had many similar experiences.

Just what is the deal with towels anyway? When I moved into my new home, I bought some high-quality American Ghirardelli chocolates for the neighbors, thinking that they might enjoy something out-of-the-ordinary, but the dear wife insisted on towels!

Getting something like a towel can be downright insulting if it's in return for days and weeks of jackhammering. In my apartment building, the couple upstairs had trouble with their pipes, and water dripped through the ceiling into my apartment.

That was bad enough, but the owner of that room insisted on having the jackhammer-involving construction work done at 8:30 AM, when a night-shift worker like myself really, really needs to sleep. No amount of cajoling from me (or pointing out that in this case, I'm the victim and he's the one at fault) could get him to start that noise at a more reasonable hour, like noon or 2 PM.

So when he showed up on the day of the construction (waking meup, mind you) with a pair of plain white towels as compensation, I wanted to throw the things right back in his face!

I'd love to see a pile of used towels thrown on the doorstep of that grocery store in Molly's neighborhood. Maybe use them to clean up filthy messes involving garbage and motor oil first!

Death to towels!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Don't I know it - my neighborhood has been disrupted every day for renovations next door, and my little box of laundry detergent doesn't go far enough!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"Love hotel point card" lmao

0 ( +0 / -0 )

For the wallet thing, I don't know, that doesn't seem so strange to me. For sure in Japan it seems to be an art (and the police are telling you to do it!), but if someone found my wallet in the states and returned it to me, I would be inclined to repay them somehow too.

I laughed at the towel bit though, hahaha. I could always use more towels however. Never underestimate the usefulness of a good free towel! Great article though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I agree with you ThonThaddeo - Ghirardellis chocolate is a FAR superior present! Thats exactly what I was trying to do - acknowledge and respect the gift-giving culture with a more modern and westernised twist to it. But it seems my mistake - crappy towels, preferrably with dodgy flowery patterns or cute teddy bears on them are the way to go.

For future reference though, anyone with kids - I bought some big packs of funky pencils with erasers from Costco for my daughter to give out as Sayonara presents to her classmates, and Yoroshiku presents to her new classmates. We attached a little note to each one for the new class, giving her name, age, family members and favourite food/animal/colour. They went down a TREAT! My daughter is immediately the most popular kid in school, and for days afterwards I was getting passed little notes through the teachers from the mums saying thank you and when I finally had my first PTA meeting at the new place only last week I was the star of the show!

3000 yen for 90 pencils and we have bought the loyalty of the whole school year and neighbourhood! Bargain!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I always tell people in the States that the Japanese return lost items because of their honesty, and I think the law states that they are entitled to found cash after a certain period. But I wasn't aware of the obligation to reward the finder. This is sort of upsetting. Of course, as a gaijin who is assumed to not know any better, you could just screw them and kick back nothing.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

But my first mistake apparently was that Japanese associate candles with death - even spiced apple, ocean breeze and cool vanilla ones. My second was assuming our neighbours would even be remotely interested in getting to know us. The guy next door studiously ignored his doorbell until we finally bumped into them going into their place-it was awkward to say the least-and virtually forced the present on them.

I love that! He musta thought you were saying 'I've moved in next door. 死ね (drop dead)!’ My husband's opening gift to the next door neighbours was to accidently splash white paint from our balcony down onto his shiny red car. Whoops...

Actually, after 15 years here, in only five different places, I've had one towel and one box of soba. Lots of people have said that whole meet the neighbours ritual is half-dead. But when I moved in to my current place (residential city centre flat in a very small block), when after a month the guy upstairs' toilet leaked through our ceiling, he told me maybe customs are different, but still ticked me off for not having observed the custom. His name's Lee, so I'm not sure what customs he might be referring to.

I try to keep out of the whole gift-giving and returning loop as much as possible. The odd omiyage when I come back from a visit home, stay away from weddings and funerals. Are any of you doing the summer gift thing?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The thing with Japanese gift-giving traditions is that its completely obligatory. You have to follow protocol! Where Im from (the "west"), theres not even a protocol, and most people shun receiving gifts for deeds done. Do a good deed for your neighbour, dont expect some money for it; sometime later the favor eventually gets returned. Return a wallet, dont ask for money. Where Im from youll be the one that seen as greedy; like the only reson you returned it was to make a profit, and not to help someone in need. Thats the reason why Japanese are seem so honest,because theres a incentive to do it. To me, this seems less genuine. Like someone begrudgingly does it for you because society forces you. Superficially though, it looks like everyone is altruitistic.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

jam sandwich: And it sounds suspiciously like extortion to expect/demand a reward for a lost item.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

a reward for a lost item

The chances of you finding your item is more.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wouldn't necessary say so, most people can't be bothered unless it's a substantial amount

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Gift-giving here vs. Christmas back home. I really hate the whole "I'd better have some generic gifts on hand in case someone gives me a present when I didn't get them anything" gift Exchange idea. I have actually come to prefer the one-wayness (or at least one-way-at-a-time-ness) of Japanese gift giving.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Ghirardellis chocolate is a FAR superior present!

I would beg to differ. Laundry detergent is way more useful to me than chocolates. I also remember receiving bars of soap and liquid dishwashing soap which seemed more useful than chocolates. Chocolates just lead to more tooth decay, if you ask me.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As for ochugen, I much prefer receiving beer (which I've gotten a lot of in the past) as well as a huge piece of ham (which I've gotten twice as oseibo), than Ghiradelli's chocolate. Smoked Peppered ham and cold beer tastes better than chocolates any day, but that's just my opinion.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Smoked Peppered ham would have to be passed on to the in-laws, and beer would go to son. No use for either. Gimme a decent-sized box o'chokkies and you got my good will for a year. Bottles of wine, whisky (preferably Scotch), tea, coffee beans (not instant), 100% fruit juices, pasta, cheese, biscuits, are all welcome. Laundry detergent is cheapo, and I'm fussy about things like soap. We've got boxes full of useless little hand-towels that haven't even made it out of their wrappers yet, don't need no more of them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Bottles of wine, whisky (preferably Scotch), tea, coffee beans (not instant), 100% fruit juices, pasta, cheese, biscuits, are all welcome.

tea, 100% fruit juices, cheese, I have all received as gifts. Also, have received fresh fruits and veggies from neighbors as gifts, but I guess you are not a fruit or veggie lover, huh? Frankly, I prefer fresh veggies and fruits to chocholates.

useless little hand-towels

Actually they can be useful as rags for cleaning. I've used them a lot, especially when I don't have any old underwear or T-shirts left.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I guess you are not a fruit or veggie lover, huh?

You could not guess wronger! But typical gift-oriented items tend to be things that keep - fresh fruit and veggies don't. Friends and neighbours often pop around with a bag of produce from the garden or allotment to share and that's greatly appreciated, but it doesn't come gift-wrapped. Plus the gift-wrapped stuff tends to come at extortionate prices and is grown to look good - not necessarily to taste great. I'd rather my friends didn't spend their money on something that would be a whole lot cheaper and probably better quality if it didn't come packed in a posh box. And if you're just getting one gift from one person, fair enough; but during the gift-giving season people get given lots of stuff, and if it all has to be eaten within two days, you can't really enjoy the specialness of it being a gift, like you can if you're eating just a couple of chokkies a day.

Rags for cleaning - well yeah, that's how most of them end up. Doggie foot wipers, floor wipers, window cleaners....but there's still a pile of virgin ones waiting to be used. Maybe I'm not cleaning often enough......:-)

especially when I don't have any old underwear or T-shirts left.

I wear my old underwear and t-shirts......

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Never go on a trip anywhere without bringing back omiyage for everyone.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

But typical gift-oriented items tend to be things that keep - fresh fruit and veggies don't.

cleo, so what's your point? That you wouldn't appreciate being given anything unless it's chocolates? I just thank the people who gave me the gift and move on. In some cases I remember them and reciprocate at a later date, and in others I do not. Besides, chocolates rarely last for a few months (if kept in the refrigerator), and less in the torrid heat of summer.

it all has to be eaten within two days,

Wrong! Many of the food stuff I've been given last a lot more than that. In fact, I've received several "otsumami" items as gifts like dried nuts (e.g. almonds) and preserved fruits (e.g. mangos) that were still great a couple of months later, but then again, you wouldn't like them since they're not "chokkies".

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My biggest surprise with Japanese gifts was when a typhoon knocked a tile off my neighbour's roof into my garden. I didn't kow if she knew there had been damage, so I returned it to her. She came back the next day with cookies "for the inconvenience". As if she'd caused the typhoon!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

so what's your point? That you wouldn't appreciate being given anything unless it's chocolates?

Higher up the thread I gave a list of things I appreciate.

Wrong!

What's 'wrong' with a sentence with an 'if' in it? If you get loads of perishable stuff you can't eat it all before it goes off.

Many of the food stuff I've been given last a lot more than that.

Yes, because typical gift-oriented items tend to be things that keep. That's wot I sed. Nuts and preserved fruits are not 'fresh fruit and veggies'. I love nuts and dried fruits, especially mango, papaya and small white figs. Candied pineapple and apple are also appreciated. In fact anything that doesn't need to be eaten at once, doesn't have dead bodies in it, isn't beer or sembei and doesn't smell funny.

One of the best gifts I ever got was a potted orchid that has flowered every year since without fail (at least 20 years), is still going strong and has produced umpteen daughters that I've been able to give to others.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites