The giving and receiving of gifts, whether they are products or money, is a complicated business in Japan. This is the first part of an irregular series explaining how the whole system works. We'll start with the most straightforward types of gifts - omiyage and temiyage.
A general disclaimer: the etiquette rules I describe on this site are the most widespread, mainstream ones. There may be some regional, age-group based and/or family based variations. When in doubt, ask someone close to you.
One of the questions I get asked the a lot from people who are planning to go to Japan for the first time and meet some Japanese people - for a home stay situation, at a hosted AirBnB, or just to see some old friends - is whether or what kind of gifts they should bring. Many such people have heard of the term "omiyage" （お土産), and perhaps heard Japanese people returning home lamenting about the need to bring omiyage for a lot of people.
Why is there so much gift giving in Japan anyway? It's considered an essential method to keep interpersonal relationships running smoothly. (It's also a huge business.) Many books and sites about personal finance recommend setting aside at least 1 month's worth and up to 10 percent of your income for unexpected expenses. Most unexpected expenses are gifts, collectively called 贈答 (zoutoh), or 冠婚葬祭 (coming of age or other age related festivities, wedding, funeral and honoring the deceased/ancestors occasions) expenses. This 10 percent figure is coincidentally the same as what religious organizations in the United States often recommend as an appropriate amount for tithing.
Consider just opting out of it all
The first thing you should know is that you are absolutely not obligated to enter the Japanese gift-giving mire. Japanese people may get strange looks or get talked about behind their backs if they don't, but if you are not Japanese, you really aren't expected to follow Japanese customs, or even know about them, at all. This is often derisively called the "gaijin exception" and quite a few people (mainly long-term expats in Japan or immigrants) dislike it, but my personal feeling is that if it gets you out of a rather bothersome, not to mention expensive, social situation, why not use it?
But let's assume that you do indeed want to get into the Japanese gift giving cycle. Here are some basic rules to follow.
Omiyage vs. Temiyage
They sound alike and when written out, but omiyage (お土産) and temiyage （手土産), which both get translated as 'gift' in English, are subtly different. An omiyage is a gift you bring to someone just because you like them, or as a sign of your closeness. So gifts you bring back from a trip for your family and friends for example are omiyage.
Temiyage, on the other hand, are gifts with a purpose - to say thanks to someone for what they've done for you in the past, or even in some cases for what you want them to do for you in the future.
Omiyage is the easier one
You only need to buy omiyage when you go on a trip, and you don't really have to buy omiyage either, with or without taking advantage of the "gaijin exception". However, you may want to plunge into the omiyage pool if:
- You work at a Japanese organization, and want to impress your colleagues with your level of assimilation.
- You want to impress your Japanese in-laws.
- You don't mind schlepping a couple of extra bags home from your trips all the time, not to mention the expense.
The best omiyage is edible, non-perishable and easy to distribute
For omiyage for the workplace, I would so far as to say do not even think about getting anything inedible, or can't be consumed right away. You want something that can be eaten and done, until the next worker there goes away and comes back with more omiyage.
You may have wondered why so many boxed sets of edible things that are on sale at train stations, airports, and gift shops in touristy areas come in little individual packets. Yes, this is pretty wasteful and environmentally unfriendly. However, it makes it really easy to navigate the Workplace Omiyage Distribution situation, since each portion of cookies or little manjuu or whatever it is can be picked up, or distributed, easily.
The most straightforward method of distributing omiyage is to simply leave the box of whatever it is near the tea/coffee station, let everyone know that it's from you, and leave it at that. This works in most casual workplaces. If your workplace is rather spread out or formal, it may be a good idea to show your boss that you did get the box of whatevers, maybe offer him/her one, then either distribute the rest or tell everyone to help themselves.
For omiyage for the family, simply give them the box (and for your in-laws, it should be full box) of whatever it is. Even for family, it should be something edible, although unlike the workplace it doesn't have to come in little individual packets.
As for omiyage for friends or someone you are really close with, anything goes - just get something you think they'd like, edible or not.
Beware of the endless circle of giving and receiving
One thing to be aware of if you enter the omiyage giving world with friends or family is that you may be entering an endless cycle of giving and receiving. Once you give someone gifts from a trip, the next time they go on a trip they are very likely to give you something back. And on and on and on. Giving back an omiyage to someone who has given you one is called _okaeshi_ (お返し), and it can, unless someone puts a stop to it, go on forever. For workplace omiyage this isn't an issue - anyone who goes away on a personal or business trip the next time will bring something back for the office, and so on.
Temiyage, the gift that says thank you or "osewa ni nari masu"
A temiyage, as described earlier, is something you bring along to an individual or a family to say thanks. The thanks can be for something that's already happened, or something you think or hope will happen. The latter is covered under the oft-used phrase, osewa ni nari masu (お世話になります), which means "I thank you and I feel obligated to you for burdening you with a job/my issues/etc." You might say osewa ni nari masu say, o a new boss. Or a new landlord. Or the movers who come to move your things. Or, if you are a traveler, you might say it to the host of the bed and breakfast type place you are staying. If you are a student you might say it to your homestay host. (The one kind of gift that might fit into the temiyage category in the west is the house gift - something you bring to your host when you go to their house for a party for instance.)
As with omiyage, non-perishable edible/drinkable gifts are still the best, although if you know your recipient well something else is possible. If you are traveling to Japan from another country, bringing in edibles could cause problems in terms of weight, or even the actual substance. Avoid any fresh fruit or vegetables and fish or meat products. This page on the Japanese Embassy in Australia site has an easy to scan chart if you are unsure. In general, anything packaged, bottled or canned is okay.
Do keep in mind that most national brands of anything sold in the U.S., Australia, U.K. and so on are already available in Japan. So if you want to bring something special, bring something as local as possible.
If you are already in Japan, something purchased locally is fine of course. If you're traveling from one part of the country to another, bringing along a local speciality would be good idea.
How much should you spend?
You should spend a bit more on a temiyage than an omiyage. The amount you spend depends on your budget of course, but also on how close you are, or your relative social positions. Emphasizing again that the following rule of thumb is for Japanese people, here's what many etiquette guides recommend.
- Friends and casual acquaintances: 2,000 to 4,000 yen (for the whole family; no need to get something for all family members or anything)
- Someone you are meeting for the first time: 3,000 to 5,000 yen
- For business associates: 4,000 to 10,000 yen
- For someone above you (say, your judo teacher): 6,000 to 10,000 yen
How to give a temiyage to the recipient
In general, you should hand the temiyage to the recipient as soon as you are both sitting down. Giving it to them as soon as you enter the house in the entryway (玄関 g.enkan) for example is considered a bit rude. If you're giving a temiyage to a business associate for example, take it out of the bag, and give it them before the meeting starts. You may want to give them the bag you brought it in separately, saying "just in case it's needed" or something.
If you are already on friendly terms with the recipient, unless they are pretty old and traditional, it's fine to give the gift with the bag.
General rules that apply to both omiyage and temiyage
- Handmade or bought?
It is generally safer to restrict handmade gifts to giving to people you are really close to, or have a very casual relationship with. Your famous brownies for your friendly neighbor? Great! For your tea teacher or a business associate - maybe not.
- Wrapped or unwrapped?
Definitely wrapped. This is done for you at any store in Japan for free. If you are buying a lot of the same omiyage, many gift shops will give you multiple paper bags for them for easier distribution. Many people even wrap handmade gifts very carefully, basically imitating storebought items. (And yes I know, not environmentally friendly. Feel free to lecture your Japanese friends about that directly.)
Some people have asked me about using furoshiki (風呂敷), cloth wrappers, as gift wrap. You could do that, but if you give a furoshiki away whenever you hand over a gift it can get expensive. The typical way a furoshiki is used is to wrap the gift for transport. You undo the furoshiki when handing over the gift, and take it home.
So that about covers it for the easiest of Japanese gifts, omiyage and temiyage. Next time we will go on to more difficult gifting topics like weddings, funerals, hospital visits and more.
As someone who is Japanese but spends a lot of time outside of Japan, I often have a sort of "half-gaijin exception", because quite a few people assume that being away from Japan somehow makes you forget all the customs and language or something. (When I was in a Japanese hospital earlier this year, one of the nurses actually asked me "how is your Japanese so perfect when you've lived overseas so much?" (Uh?) This kind of thing is annoying, but I admit that I do take advantage of it when it suits me, to forgetfully excuse myself from certain social obligations. ↩