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Finding the Perfect Present for Your Japanese Office

'Tis the season for gift giving or ‘gift leaving' if you work in a Japanese company. If you're going to play Santa at the office, find out the unwritten gift-giving rules in Japan.

By 5 min read

The holiday season has been a time for exchanging business-appropriate presents long before Japan joined in the Christmas celebrations. Oseibo is the Japanese tradition of giving end-of-year gifts to express gratitude to neighbors, friends and colleagues.

Although a lot has changed since this practice began centuries ago, this month remains the most appropriate time to thank your coworkers with a little something special.

Nothing personal

Remember, equivalent exchange.

If you think you’ve found the perfect present for someone, think again. Contrary to what you may believe, getting your baseball-obsessed boss a Dodgers sweatshirt is a terrible idea, and getting them tickets to a game could send you straight to gift-giving hell.

In Japan, gifts are not given—they’re exchanged. In other words, when you give someone a present, they become responsible for retrieving you with something of equal value. If you get someone the best gift ever, they’ll be pressed to find something comparable, a time-consuming effort in an already busy season.

That only applies to individual gifts, which is why collective ones are so popular—they take the pressure off everyone. For example, someone leaves a set of small gifts in a common area, and everyone else takes one at their own pace: Japanese people swear by that system.

Oseibo season traditionally went from early December to the 20th, although nowadays, a few days after that.

Perhaps the most challenging part of making business presents is how painstakingly simple it’s supposed to be. However, there’s a tacit understanding in oseibo: No one cares if people like the presents they picked.

Would your coworkers prefer salted crackers to nori (seaweed) ones? Not your problem to think about. Pick something you think most people would enjoy and trust that they’re like most people. Even if they’re not, they’ll acknowledge your considerate gesture. After all, isn’t that the point of the season?

Gifts for people you don’t know

If you’re a teacher, you’ll probably interact with colleagues more than supervisors or school principals. So, wouldn’t it make more sense to give something only to them? They’re the only ones you talk to every day, after all.

Perhaps, but blood is thicker than water, and Japanese companies see themselves as big families. So even if you’re incredibly thankful towards a friendly colleague or an accommodating boss, giving something only to them would be unusual.

Do you want to show someone your appreciation? Find a moment to thank them. Of course, you can’t be too generous with words, but you could be with gifts.

Gifts for everyone

Fruit is a popular oseibo gift.

Every Japanese corporation has a common area for gifts or omiyage. People leave presents there instead of handing them out because it’s assumed everyone’s busy at work. Also, it’s much less awkward than shoving butter cookies to a coworker on their way to the bathroom.

What makes a good present? Barista’s blend for an office that runs on caffeine sounds fitting, but don’t worry about making it too specific. Most people opt for a set of food, drinks or daily use items. Popular presents include:

  • Senbei (Japanese rice crackers) and other savory snacks
  • Sweets such as chocolate, wagashi (Japanese confections), baumkuchen, jelly and pastries
  • Coffee and tea
  • Canned drinks, especially juice
  • Fruit, dried fruit and seaweed
  • Bath salts, hand creams, handkerchiefs and hand towels

The cost will vary according to how many items you want to include and what your work environment looks like, but, as a reference, people typically spend somewhere between ¥2500 to ¥5000 on oseibo.

Remote office blues

Nothing can ruin the spirit of giving like working remotely, and many people opt out of gifts altogether at the face of it. Instead, companies like Starbucks or Amazon offer electronic gift cards—an incipient, albeit valid option. Sending e-gift cards through the Line app is also a popular choice, and there’s a wide selection to choose from. But if you’re really eager to send someone something, there’s another, more personal alternative.

Aoyama Gift Salon offers a pretty innovative service available in all prefectures. On their website, you can buy someone a present and then send them a link in which they’ll see what they got from you and a QR code they can scan to input the receiving address. They’ll get your present in just a few days.

The best part is not needing to know the recipient’s address and still sending them something without putting them on the spot or spoiling the surprise.

Timing matters

New Year postcards, or nengajo, are scheduled weeks in advance to arrive on New Year’s Day—not a day before or after, which is considered bad luck. Belated oseibo brings about the same misfortune.

Oseibo season traditionally went from early December to the 20th, although nowadays, a few days after that. Aim at giving your present before New Year’s break, though. Once the new year starts, there is rarely time to go over the deeds from the previous one.

Where most office workers find their gifts

Try not to just tear into it.

In Japan, presentation matters as much as the item itself. So most people pick up a well-arranged gift from a confectionery shop at a department store, the safest way to get something suitable. Some department store chains that also have online stores with country-wide shipping include:

The staff will take care of everything and possibly even offer to send it directly to your company. The only tricky part is making up your mind amid so many colors and options. However, everything goes smoothly from there.

One note on wrapping paper. I once excitedly tore it in front of a Japanese colleague who’d just given me a present, and, after seeing the shocked look on her face, I decided against doing that ever again. I didn’t know it then, but the presentation is so important that destroying a wrapping arrangement is disrespectful. So it’s better to handle the wrapping with care.

Have you ever received an oseibo? Do you have an amazing gift idea for your office? Share it with us in the comments below!

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