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Gift giving in Japan

Ah, the joy of being a child and receiving pocket money from grandmothers, aunties, and uncles. Unfortunately, this money never made it into my hands; my mom would always collect it. I believe this is the case for so many people around the world. Anyway, if she did give me the money to decide what to buy, I would head to the store near our home and buy candies, potato chips, or those long, frozen, weirdly colored ice treats that parents despise.

In my home country, Albania, monetary gifts are considered more valuable than physical gifts. The main idea is that giving money allows people to purchase whatever they desire. This applies to various occasions such as birthdays, weddings, funerals, graduations, engagements, and so on. And, I've always wondered about gift-giving cultures in other countries, especially in Japan.

For example, in Japan at weddings, it's customary to give money in odd numbers such as 1, 3, 5, 7, and so on. The reason is that the amount should be indivisible, symbolizing a bond that cannot be broken, thereby ensuring a long and happy marriage. Also the closer you are to the family, the more money you're expected to give, and the bills should be new and crisp. On the other hand, at funerals, it's customary to give old bills.

Relationships and gift-giving play a significant role in Japan, where they are categorized into three main types: chikai/toi, koi/usui, and fukai/asai.

Chikai and Toi reflect the physical or professional proximity; chikai means near, indicating living close by or working in the same place, while toi means far. Koi/usui pertains to the depth of blood relationships, where koi signifies a deep relationship typically with parents, and usui is used to describe more distant relations like third cousins. Lastly, fukai/asai deals with the depth of non-blood relationships; fukai signifies deep relationships like those with best friends, and asai refers to superficial relationships that one maintains.

The amount of money given as a gift is often influenced by these relationships, and I believe many countries follow a similar logic. In contrast, Albanians have a humorous approach, especially for weddings or birthdays, where the gift amount is usually the same as what was received previously. For instance, if someone gave $300 at a wedding, that's the amount they will receive in return at another event. This reminds me of a famous comedic moment from the Albanian movie 'Zonja nga Qyteti,' where a character re-gifts an item she received for her house at another event.

Indeed, not only do relationships influence gift-giving in Japan, but life cycles play a crucial role as well. As you're aware, rice is a staple food in Japan, and it carries significant cultural symbolism, especially in how it's served in different life stages. Unlike in daily life, where rice bowls are not filled to the brim, there are three specific occasions when the bowl is filled completely:

1. On the 7th night after an infant's birth, the soul is considered to be firmly anchored to the human world. Families donate rice to temples to symbolically cut the relationship with any past reincarnations.

2. When a woman leaves her home to get married, she consumes a big bowl of rice piled high. This act symbolizes cutting ties with her natal household.

3. For the deceased, rice is offered to signify the end of their relationship with the worldly life.

This tradition is deeply rooted in the composition of the kanji for rice 米, which integrates the elements for “eighty-eight” and conveys the notions of “spreading out at the end” and “having enough of everything.” Additionally, there's a proverb stating that “Eighty-eight gods dwell in one grain of rice,” underscoring rice as an emblem of health and happiness. This interweaving of rice with life's milestones and transitions highlights its profound significance in Japanese culture.

The kanji for gift-giving, 贈答, combine “贈” (to give) and “答” (answer), symbolizing the act of giving something in return when you receive a gift. This reciprocity is deeply embedded in Japan's gift-giving culture, which originated in its agrarian society roots. Initially, people shared what they harvested, establishing a two-way relationship of mutual assistance. Over time, these exchanges evolved into a system where gifts also served to signify family status and social standing, reflecting the custom of “sharing the harvest” in agricultural communities.

Food is particularly valued as a gift because it is a “disappearing item” that doesn't impose any lasting burden on the recipient. This term refers to items that are consumed and thus disappear, making them ideal since they don't leave the recipient with the dilemma of storing or disposing of them. This aspect of gift-giving underscores the preference for presents that are practical and considerate of the recipient's convenience.

Japan is renowned for its many manufacturers that produce delicious sweets, which enjoy popularity among both Japanese people and international visitors. Such items are a favored choice for gifts due to their consumable nature and the delight they bring.

The price of the gift often varies according to the recipient's role or relationship to the giver, such as a boss, customer, friend, or family member. However, the value placed on a gift in Japanese culture is less about its monetary worth and more about the sentiment and manner in which it is given. This underscores the importance of the thought and care invested in the act of gift-giving, reflecting the giver's consideration and respect for the recipient.

The expression "つまらないものですけど" (tsumaranai mono desu kedo), which translates to "It's nothing much, but…" is a common preamble in Japan when presenting a gift. This phrase embodies the quintessentially Japanese cultural value of humility, offering a gift with the implication that it might not meet the recipient's expectations. The sentiment is significantly more modest than saying, "I'm giving you something nice."

This practice is theorized to serve two main purposes. Firstly, it aims to "lighten the burden on the other person," acknowledging the social expectation of reciprocity that gift-giving often entails. By downplaying the significance of the gift, the giver is suggesting that the recipient need not feel pressured to reciprocate with something of equal or greater value. Secondly, it helps to ease any feelings the recipient might have of needing to "return the favor or express gratitude" excessively. This approach facilitates a smoother social exchange by minimizing potential stress or obligation the recipient might feel, emphasizing the gesture's thoughtfulness over its material value.


Rupp, Katherine. "Gift-Giving in Japan."

日本の贈答文化 :Gift-Giving Culture in Japan

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