On a recent trip back to Japan to visit my family, I was able to see a childhood friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. She brought her daughter with her to my parents house and as we were enjoying tea she gave me a nicely wrapped gift and said “つまらないものだけど..” which can be translated as “this is a trivial gift..(but please accept it)”.
Gift giving is an important part of Japanese culture and it is customary to bring a gift when visiting someone’s house. As Japanese culture emphasizes the virtue of humility, people often say the following when giving a gift:
“つまらないものですが..” : This is a trivial gift but (please accept it)
“つまらないものだけど..” : This is what my girlfriend said to me as it is less formal.
Despite the real value of the gift, many Japanese will say that what they are giving you is trivial as this will lower their position and raise the status of the person they are giving the gift to.
Did my friend really believe that it was a trivial gift? Actually between friends, you don’t need to be this formal but my friend wanted to be more polite because she and I hadn’t seen each other in many years.
It was a nice gesture of friendship from her.
I actually still say “it’s nothing”..when I give a gift to my American friends. Then one friend actually told me it wasn’t small because I gave her a $100 gift certificate for her wedding ceremony. She was right but I still say it out of habit.
If you are visiting your Japanese friend or staying with your Japanese host family, gifts will help you strengthen your relationship and also improve your impression significantly. Be sure to have a wrapped gift inside a shopping bag when giving a gift to your Japanese friend. Additionally, if you are giving a gift to your Japanese superior, make sure to give your gift with both hands.
This tradition also describes the Japanese cultural value on “Honne” (real feelings) and “tatemae” (public display) when dealing with social obligations. Even though the gift isn’t trivial or boring, you still want to say it is to show (tatemae) humility.
It is interesting that many Japanese people, especially the young ones find this custom a burden. But I find this art of gift giving to be fascinating and hope that young Japanese people will continue to embrace it.
This is a great way to strengthen your personal or professional relationship with each other in Japan, a society that values harmony, humility and respect.