The Intricate Science Of Gift-Giving & Receiving

with Yurie Horiguchi

I shall be doing a little re-cycling in the next few columns since I first started building bridges for foreign­ers to better understand Japan some 3 1/2 years ago.

Newcomers, I have learn­ed, would like to know about Japanese etiquette, gifts and marriages — are they still “arranged,” etc.

As I am a disorderly person, I shall not start with the first subject nor the second, but the middle one – gift giving. This, as you may have noticed, is almost a na­tional pastime in Japan.

First, when you receive a gift for no particular reason, you can be sure that it is offered either through pure friendship, or as a bribe. Only you can judge.

Secondly, I shall be speak­ing from a purely Japanese point of view and you, as a gaijin, are not obliged to follow suit but to do what comes naturally, such as writing a note of thanks, or making a thank-you call.

When invited to a per­son’s home, the Japanese in­variably bear a gift in the form of a cake or cakes, chocolates or candy, fruit and sometimes a pot­ted plant. They never go empty-handed. This custom you can follow.

When you, the gaijin, send a wedding gift, you will receive a present on leaving the reception after the wedding is over. That is the Japanese equivalent of a “thank-you” note so don’t expect one.

When you send a gift to a young mother on a baby’s birth, you will receive a box of sugar (in some form or another) some weeks later. This is the Japanese way of saying “thank you.”

If you visit a Japanese friend in hospital, or send flowers or a basket of fruit, you will receive a gift after he leaves the hospital. This is equivalent to a “Thank you, I am convales­cing at home” note.

If you attend a funeral, or the wake that precedes it, and leave condolence money or an altar gift, you will receive a thank-you present after the immediate mourn­ing period is ended. As the latter can vary between 50 days (Shinto) and 35 or 49 days (Buddhist), this gift generally comes as a surprise.

O-chugen or mid-year (June) presents, are general­ly sent to a person’s home and were traditionally to thank someone for a kind­ness or service rendered (doctors, nurses, janitors, etc.) during the preceding six months.

Since the war, however, o-chugen present-giving has got rather out of hand and mainly business companies send expensive presents to directors and other  influential people hoping to bribe the latter into patronizing them. Politicians are show­ered with such presents al­though the government has half-heartedly tried to put a stop to it.

The same performance is repeated in mid-December when o-seibo presents are circulated.

At the same time, the Japanese are not at all par­ticular about observing birthdays or anniversaries among themselves. I know several ladies who have never received a birthday present in their lives.

Japanese children receive presents at the New Year from parents and close relatives, generally in the form of cash if they are old enough, or toys such as you would give your own children at Christmas.

Christmas is not a public holiday in Japan. Except for foreign or joint-venture companies, business is as usual everywhere. If you forgot to buy old Aunt Sarah’s present, you can nip out to the nearest depart­ment store on Christmas Day and cover up.

Those are just the basics. The art lies in the manner in which the gift is wrapped. There is a different noshi, or symbol, for each type gift.

The present itself usually has a white paper covering, tied with ornamental paper strings, of different colors according to the occasion, called mizuhiki, while the above-mentioned noshi is pasted to the upper right hand corner.

If the present is sent and not delivered by hand, the name of the donor is written (in sumi ink) in the center below the ornamental strings. The latter (which are of starched paper) are in two colors, red and white, divided evenly, in the case of formal presents, with the exception of mourning gifts, whore the red is replaced by black.

On very auspicious occa­sions, including weddings, gold and silver strings are used, together with a very decorative and beautiful noshi. For both wedding and mourning gifts, the ends are usually cut off short to indicate that there will be no recurrence of the event (!)—that’s what it says.

The noshi, incidentally, is never put on mourning pres­ents. Also, there are special black-bordered envelopes in which to place condolence money—and gorgous ones for a wedding gift in cash.

This is just to give you an idea since you yourself will probably never need to do your own wrapping when sending a gift, especially if you choose it in a department store. The main thing is to tell the salesgirl what the gift is destined for: wedding, thank-you (orei), present (oiwai), etc. She will then see that it is wrapped accordingly.

If you deliver a gift your­self it is possible that the Japanese recipient, if traditionally minded, will not open it in your presence but will set it aside.

Today, however, most young people and Japanese who are in contact with foreigners will follow the Western custom of opening the gift immediately while emitting the expected sounds of appreciation.

The custom of giving hikkoshi-soba or “moving-day noodles” to neighbors on both sides of your new abode is largely being dropped. This is because it no longer makes sense when moving into an apartment building, for instance, where you generally hope your neighbors will keep their distance!

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Just a reminder to those who have brought dogs with you to Japan: it must be registered as soon as possible with your local Health Office (Hoken-jo). You will then receive notification by post-card twice a year (April and October) giving dates and places in your immediate neighborhood where a mobile rabies vaccination unit will be set up.

You must take your dog there on the specified date and hour and after your dog has been vaccinated (about ¥300) you will receive a tag to put on its collar. The April vaccination costs about ¥800 plus “the tag-of-the-year” and relevant receipts.

All dogs in Japan MUST be vaccinated against rabies twice a year. As the color of the tags are changed every year, you can’t cheat. Also, the Hoken-jo will call you up between periods if they find that your register­ed dog has not received its vaccination.

Then you will have to pay anything up to ¥5,000 to get your local vet to do the job and obtain the necessary receipts and tags, plus an admonition.