Present Tense: Grammatically Correct Japanese Gift Giving
By Matthew Coslett
On December 22, 2017
Kids are wrong about many Christmasy things — whether elves exist, whether a jolly fat man leaves presents trees, whether reindeer really know how to fly and many others — but one thing they are not wrong about is the simple equation that Christmas = presents. Even in relatively non-Christian countries like Japan the tradition of giving seasonal gifts is a big part of the culture.
However, giving presents is not so simple in Japan. There are many different verbs and words for presents and giving. Worse still, using the wrong one can even cause offense. Luckily, the increasing influence of the West on Japan has meant that many English words can be used in an only slightly changed Japanese form. It is perfectly acceptable to use both the words プレゼント (present), ギフト (gift) and even ギブ (give) in Japanese, for example.
However, this can conceal the fact that Japanese people have gift-giving traditions of their own which even foreign people are expected to observe. If you return to your hometown for Christmas, it is considered rude not to bring a small souvenir from your trip home called お土産 (souvenir).
If you bring a gift that isn’t お土産, it is often called 贈り物 instead. This word is made up of the words for give (贈る) and thing (物) and serves as a general, multi-functional word for “things given to people.”
Another pair of common words are お中元 and お歳暮. These describe cash or gift “bonuses” that are given to teachers and educators by their grateful students. Alas, for teachers trying to fill their pockets, this tradition is rapidly disappearing as the economy gets worse… especially when the teacher concerned is non-Japanese. These days I am lucky to get anything more than a homemade brownie for my troubles.
Intriguingly, similar money-giving traditions also exist with children. The New Year season is popular with kids as adults are expected to give kids お年玉, a sum of money given as a gift that increases in generosity as the child ages. This can be a tough time for adults with lots of relatives as the amount starts from pocket change and goes all the way up to one or even several 万円札 (¥10,000 notes) — possibly in addition to a Christmas present!
When the present is given, it is typically done using the verbs あげる and もらう. At first, these two may be tricky to distinguish in that あげる means that the present comes from you and もらう means that the present is given to you.
- 私は先生にお土産をあげた (I gave my teacher a souvenir)
- 先生からプレゼントをもらう (I’ll get a present from my teacher)
- 犬にもお土産をあげた (I even brought a souvenir for the dog)
One of the best things about the gift-giving tradition in Japan is that it doesn’t matter so much if the gift itself is unwanted, the more important part is that the gift is given and given politely. Therefore, enjoy your holidays and don’t worry so much about the gift — as long as you give it in the right spirit, it is usually appreciated.