Gift-giving is as much a custom of every day life as it is an art. And few cultures in the world place as much importance on gifts as Japan does. Naturally, Kyoto was for the longest time the place in Japan where gift-giving customs developed and were refined.
As is true in many cultures, in Japan gifts can be used to express thanks or, more importantly, strengthen or create relationships. Indeed in a society as strictly tiered and densely urban as Japan, gift-giving is nearly always a communication about one kind of relationship or another. An excellent example is when one moves into a neighborhood. In this situation, the Japanese either give buckwheat or soba noodles (because they are long and thus imply a long relationship), or washing machine detergent or soap (to symbolize a clean, pure start to the relationship).
Gift exchange is so important in Japan that there are two primary seasons for giving gifts: oseibo and chugen. Both have historical connections to the ancestor worship rites of the New Year and Obon (mid-August), respectively. Today, both periods occur, not surprisingly, at the beginning of winter and summer, when even the business world, albeit briefly, enters a period of rest and quiet.
Oseibo and chugen were originally nothing more than a simple offering at the family altar. It served as a way to welcome the spirits of the ancestors to the ancestral home. Common traditional offerings included special kinds of preserved fish, rice, and rice cakes (see photo). Later gift-giving expanded to convey gratitude to village headmen, craft guild heads, marriage matchmakers, one’s boss, and anyone else upon whose kindness one’s own life depended. Naturally, corporate related gifts are very common. In a way, the annual winter and summer bonus seasons are a part of the gift-giving period. This is a time that the corporation or business expresses its gratitude, in the form of money, to its workers.
Gift giving and exchange is such a normal part of Japanese daily life that it has developed into something that is very practical. There is a joke that goes: If you wait long enough the gift you once gave will be given to you. Very well connected people have entire separate rooms in which to house their gifts. These gifts are carefully cataloged and to be passed on to the right person. Indeed, gift-giving is an industry in itself.
Naturally, given that space is limited in most Japanese homes and companies, food is a favorite gift. This is especially expressed in the idea of the omiyage or souvenir given to one and all of importance upon returning from a trip. Every place in Japan that attracts a modest number of tourists has it meibutsu or famous thing, usually a kind of cake, cracker, or pickle. In ancient times, all of these things had special merit: they were easy to preserve and yet differed greatly from place to place. Omiyage of this kind are available throughout the town or place they come from, especially stacked up in neatly wrapped (i.e. ready to go at the last minute) boxes at the train station. At any big international airport in the world, the Asian, but particularly the Japanese, custom of giving gifts is quite evident.
Another prominent gift custom involves weddings. In Japan gifts are given to everyone that is invited to the wedding and then another kind of gift to everyone that donated money (about half is returned in the form of a gift). All department stores have special catalogues of popular and naturally suitable items from which one can choose a few or many of the same thing. The “gift” department staff is trained in gift wrapping (an art and a subtle form of communication). In Kyoto, often how something is boxed and wrapped is equal in importance to the gift itself. In the old days and still often enough today, the person bringing the gift will wrap it in a furoshiki: a large, traditional cloth used to carry things and in many other ways (it is usually returned).
When you receive a gift in Japan, do not open it (unless you are asked to). Strange as it may seem, the person giving the gift will usually tell you what it is. This has much practical value: one must remember what one received; one must know what is inside to decide if and how to pass it on. Such are the secrets of gift giving!
In Kyoto the shopping opportunities, both traditional and modern are nearly endless. For a full look at all levels and perspectives, spend a few hours wandering around the world of Takashimaya Department Store (see their AD on page 14). If you do buy something for someone else, just tell the clerk at the counter, “purezento desu, tsutsunde kudasai” (it is a gift, please wrap it).