The Japanese custom is huge on gifts. For the Japanese, gift giving is an obligation, as much as a social gesture.
In Japan, people gave gifts when they are indebted to another person or when someone did them a favor. Moreover, they believe it is the thought of giving, and not the value of the gift itself. The Japanese puts more weight on what the gift looks like on the outside, rather than the content of the gift itself.
General Gift Giving Etiquette
- Gifts are always given during weddings, anniversaries and birth of a child. Housewarming and graduations also call for presents. Birthdays and Christmas do not usually call for a gift, but you can still give gifts during these occasions, as this does not violate any custom anyway.
- When you give a gift to a Japanese, do not be surprised when you receive a gift from the same person. Reciprocation of gifts (o-kaeshi) is a custom in Japan, even if the reciprocated present comes a month later. Typically, a reciprocated gift is half of the value of the gift received. When you receive a gift from a Japanese, you should send a gift back.
- When coming from a trip, souvenirs (called omiyage) are expected to give to families and co-workers.
- Since the Japanese put more weight on the wrapping, the color of your gift wrapping may imply something. For example, black and red imply sexuality, so you should avoid this color combination when you have no romantic interest to the recipient. This is a huge topic in itself, so you can just see this guide from Giftypedia if you are interested.
- A gift from your home town or country is more appreciated than a more expensive gift you just bought from around the block.
- Avoid giving gifts in pairs, as the number 2 is unlucky for the Japanese. Try sets of three or eight as these are considered lucky.
- Money gifts should always be given in an envelope.
- The Japanese present their gifts with both hands. Both hands are also used in receiving the gift.
- It is polite to refuse a gift once or twice before receiving.
Gifts to Avoid
- Camellias, lotus and lillies are usually used at funerals, so do not give them as gifts.
- When giving money, do not place it inside a red envelope as red envelopes are used in funeral rites.
Giving Presents to Friends and Loved Ones
- Valentines Day, February 14. Customs dictate that a woman give inexpensive chocolates to the males in her life. To the man she is serious about, though, she will give higher value chocolates. The men who received chocolates usually will reciprocate this gesture by giving back candies or cookies a month later, on White Day, March 14.
- Weddings. The newlyweds usually are given money in envelopes. The bills inside should be an odd number as the Japanese believe that even numbers will make the couple as the money can be easily split into two.
- For the sick, flowers are a popular gift. One should avoid camellias, lotus, lillies and chrysanthemum, as these flowers are associated with the dead. Also, avoid potted flowers and plant and bouquets in sets of 4, 19 or 13.
- Sejinshiki or Coming of Age. Gifts of adult clothing are given by their parents to the person who turned the age of 20 last year.
Giving Presents to Business Partners and Clients
Gift giving a large theme in conducting business with the Japanese. However, the Japanese business is very different: humility is not the focus of gifting anymore, but more so on the originality of the gift, to the point that it is becoming a competition.
- Reciprocation is also practiced in business.
- On the first business meeting, a gift is usually expected. Bring a modest gift wrapped in beautiful wrap for everyone coming to meet you.
- Receiving a gift from your home country is very much appreciated, especially if it is a food item.
- Since gift giving is common in business, a gift should never be viewed as a bribed, no matter how expensive it is. (Expensive gifts are common, too.)
- You should always say “tsumaranai mon” which means “boring gift” when giving a gift, no matter how interesting or expensive it is. It is to convey, “I find our business relationship more interesting.”
- Refuse the gift once or twice before accepting.