Gift-giving is a meaningful gesture in the Japanese culture and the concept greatly differs from the practice in many Western cultures. For the Japanese gift giving is not limited to simply holidays or birthdays, although the practice is becoming more common. The experience of giving and receiving gifts is at least as important, if not more so, than the actual gift itself. This is why it is important to understand when gifts are to be given, and what items are considered appropriate.
The Ritual of Giving
The tradition of gift-giving is intended to be highly ritualistic and meaningful for both the giver and receiver. Both parties must use two hands to give and receive the gift, and each must formally bow while doing so. The gift should then be unwrapped in a careful and polite manner. For those giving gifts, it is important not to overlook anyone in a particular setting. This means that no gift should be given to anyone if there are not enough to go around. However, there are some gifts that are acceptable to be given to a group and shared by all, such as a painting or certain food items. Sending a thank you note is a must, and it is considered impolite not to do so.
When to Give
Gifts can be given for almost any reason imaginable. The Japanese are very conscientious about balance and equality when giving gifts. They will often give a return gift of similar value shortly after one is received. Therefore it is considered impolite to give very expensive or extravagant gifts as it implies an expectation to do the same. There are two occasions, one in December and one in June, where family and friends give gifts to one another called "Oseibo" and "Chugen." The gifts are generally not more expensive than 5,000 yen, which is the equivalent of £27. When travelling, it is customary to bring souvenirs from any vacation or trip, although postcards are not regarded as gifts.
What to Give
Popular gift items may include mementos from an employer or university that bear the institution's logo. The Japanese are fascinated with American culture; gifts from the United States, especially when attributed to a particular location, are often appreciated. Chocolates, cakes, fruits, regional foods, statues or other small items are considered proper. Plants other than bonsai trees are never appropriate gifts. Flowers such as lilies, camellias, lotus or any white variety are associated with funerals. Potted plants are considered to encourage sickness and are also frowned upon. Eastern cultures have a preference for odd numbers which differs from most Western cultures. An odd number of gifts should be given, with the exception of the number nine which is considered bad luck and is associated with death.
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