The Act Of Gift Giving In Japan

By
On August 31, 2014
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Photo by Melanie Levi

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.

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Japan born, US educated, language teacher.
  • Fargles says:

    Hell, I don’t suppose butt fucking is a gift… or is it? Well, lemme know.

  • mousey says:

    You forgot to mention that it is an obligation to give a gift when visiting someone’s home in Japan because if you don’t you’ll be seen as a impolite guest and will appear insensitive to Japanese customs. Gift giving is also a must when you come back from a vacation. ALL your co-workers will expect a little treat when you return. (this will cost you a fortune) (a way around it is if you keep your vacation a secret)
    IMO it is kind of a burden but hey we all have our opinions.

  • Calime says:

    I would like to ask, how do you reply to this phrase correctly? Just with “arigatou gozaimasu” or is there another phrase to use in this situation?

    • Rose Tanasugarn says:

      The super polite way is to say, “Enryo naku, itadakimasu.” (I accept without restraint). Or “Choudai itashimasu.” (I humbly accept). It depends on your relative rank to the gift giver. So many ways you can answer!

  • Rey Chand says:

    If were given a chance to spend the remaining years of my life i love and really want to live in Japan.I love the people,culture,attitude,food and their fashion.Feeling so safe and wonderful when in Japan,Japanese are great and loving people they value one’s life and respect you as a human being.Long live Japan.

  • James Paul says:

    oh man… my wedding at a shrine in Roppongi had us getting a lot of gifts and giving everyone a gift….

  • Ma Ra says:

    I love the idea of gift giving, even without special occasion and I find this article really nice. More often than not, I think and search thoroughly not only for the gift itself but for ways on how to present my gift. Also, I consider people’s nationality as well. So, thank you for this article, I got a new idea on how will I present my gifts next time.

  • Denversun says:

    This isn’t really just Japan, though. The US has that type of culture as well, in various regions.

  • Chucho says:

    I have only done the gift-giving once. It was when I first moved to Yokosuka and my landlord helped me give a gift to my next-door neighbor. Nice experience.

    Chucho

  • Yumitolesson says:

    sorry thank you Anthony

  • Wriggley says:

    good article and a hilarious typo! i think that means bonus points 🙂

  • Zao Zhu says:

    Cool article, but there’s a typo: look for the words “pubic display”!

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