by Peter Ward
In Japan, the custom of gift giving dates back to the time when the Trojan horse was only a filly. Militarily it could be classified as a softening up operation.
The recipient of a gift bows very low to hide his face and to keep from being betrayed by his true feelings. The giver meanwhile demeans the value (not the intent) of the gift and leaves no room for any response except exaggerated gratitude. Out of sight of the giver the gift is carefully unwrapped, (it may be rewrapped and used again) and revenge—or at least getting even— is immediately plotted. This is necessary before the donor can return and demand the recipient’s daughter in marriage or a ¥10 million loan, depending on the softening-up power of the gift.
In case of foreigners, a gift usually precedes a request to “look over” and correct the English in a brief 399-page report on “The Sexual Activity of Ionized Hydrocarbons in the Meta and Ortho Positions.” (This is also one of the reasons why there are so many foreigners going around who secretly consider themselves authors.)
In order to get even, the return gift must be chosen with extreme care so that it approximates the value of the one unwillingly received. To prevent it from being forwarded to some other unsuspecting benefactor, the name or occasion can be indelibly printed on the bottom. This grounding of the gift is considered unfair tactics. (Of course it does not affect foreigners who dispose of such gifts when they visit the home office and imaginatively explain the Japanese inscription.) Indelible printing is provided by most stores as a great service to themselves.
The gift-giving season and the wrapping must also be very carefully considered. The method of wrapping the gift can be studied in any reputable college, or stores with graduates of same will allow you to hire their services. The choice of ribbon is also a very delicate affair and could depreciate the value of the gift tremendously. A red ribbon is to declare the gift war is on; black is for sadness, used especially for wakes and funerals to signify the end of a gift-giving era; green just denotes that the store was out of red or black. The season for gift giving is limited to Christmas and New Year’s—or whenever the donor feels like it.
If, on the other hand, you decide to become a donor, the following information may prove helpful. If you give a gift to be sequenced by a “small petition,” the request must be completely unexpected, and you must give the impression that there are hordes of would-be-benefactors just waiting to be asked. Thus the requester gives the requestee the impression that he/she is first. Being first has great psychological advantages in Japan. (Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima are only remembered because they are examples of firsts in their respective categories.)
The request must be made with deep protestations of self hate which includes an apology for your own existence and, of course, a solemn head-touching-toe bowing is a must. Judging from a thorough observation of the experts in this field, it seems that the best way is to grab both sides of your sitting anatomy and dig in the fingers to keep yourself from laughing or listening to what you are saying. The requestee must get no time to answer until the requester has presented his petition at least five times using the same words in ever lengthening spiels. When the requestee begins to speak, it is necessary to interrupt immediately and begin the “profuse outpouring of gratitude” speech. (For gaijin a handshake may be in order here if a free hand becomes visible and is unclenched.) Of course, this scene has to be practiced many times at home; this is the reason that even in ancient times the mirror had a special place in Japanese homes. Modern bowers may use instant replay.
Gifts to politicians, heads of companies or even clerks who work in the Immigration Office must never be delivered in person. These gifts should be sent in the wife’s name directly from the department store. However “summer-in-heat” cards (sho chu mimai) and New Year’s cards (nengajo) should be sent to recipients to remind them of your continuing existence. Sending cards postage due is not advisable as the future benefactor may get nervous and send you a gift of equivalent value and thus ruin the balance which was in your favor.
If on the other hand you are a company president, or about to be reassigned or move into a gift-receiving capacity, you have two options open to you after you receive many gifts. 1) Selectively send out form letters stating it is company policy not to accept gifts. (This allows you to keep the gifts you particularly like.) 2) Keep everything.
When you get a gift, always check it for fingerprints. Recently I gave a bottle of whisky to an apartment-hunting friend who gave it to a real estate agent who gave it to my landlord who gave it to his wife who gave it to her English teacher who gave it back to me. The percentage of debts paid and generated by this one bottle was probably higher than the alcohol percentage.
If you wish to give the gift, a golf club membership, a seat at a sumo tournament or a season ticket to Giants baseball is just the ultimate. The above-mentioned gifts can be given indiscriminately as a baseball fan can use golf- or sumo-oriented gifts to cause a gratitude vacuum for himself. Also these gifts can be shared by many people, thus ensuring a constant reservoir of good will. This situation is considered to be the essence of riches. Any poverty in Japan can be traced to a wilful refusal to give gifts.
But if you are tempted to jump on the gift-giving merry-go-round, be sure to discriminate between sempai (seniors) and kohai (juniors). The sempai’s gift has to be 95% better than the kohai’s and all kohai gifts have to be exactly the same. It is also very important to know the exact number of kohai as an overlooked kohai has often spelled doom for many a well-meaning gift-giving operation. (For the rest of the story read your local newspaper.) But once you join the gift-giving circuit, it is very hard to resign from it. So far only two methods have been found successful: a) to go bankrupt publicly, b) to move and give a bogus forwarding address.
I hope that this column reminds all those who owe me a debt or to whom I owe a debt of something, that I’m waiting with interest.