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Gift Giving in Japan: A Traveler's Guide to Japanese Omiyage

Author:

I was born in Nagano, Japan. I moved to America when I was 2, where I received a BA from Connecticut College before returning to Japan.

Omiyage is the traditional act of gift giving in Japan. Read on to learn how to choose the perfect gift for your hosts.

Omiyage is the traditional act of gift giving in Japan. Read on to learn how to choose the perfect gift for your hosts.

What Is Omiyage?

Omiyage, or in simpler terms, gifts, are used as social currency in Japan. Any office worker or teacher will come back with at least a biscuit for each of their co-workers when they return from a trip from outside of their general area, and especially when returning from abroad.

Here's where this guide applies to you, the presumably non-Japanese person who wants to know what to get their gracious hosts in Japan. Because you'll be going to Japan from someplace really cool and foreign, your hosts will be curious about all sorts of aspects of your different life. Therefore, choosing the perfect omiyage will satisfy your desire to be mannered and your host's curiosity over what you're all about.

What Should I Bring as a Gift?

Here are some of the best things you can bring your host:

  • Candy
  • Alcohol
  • Soap and skincare

These are the perfect gifts by many standards. They're instantly enjoyable, they usually have noisy wrappers that ignite your appetite and get you excited, and they give everyone something to talk about for a few minutes ("I wonder how they make these...", "Are these whole macadamias?", "I like the goat emblem on this soap!", etc.). In addition, they're easy to share with many people.

What Shouldn't I Bring?

  • Clothing items

It's hard to know what someone's size or taste in clothing is like, so bringing a t-shirt or sweatshirt as a gift is less than ideal.

Salt water taffy is a great, all-American candy to give to your host in Japan.

Salt water taffy is a great, all-American candy to give to your host in Japan.

1. Candy

Candy is universally liked. If you bring your hosts/friends something local, not too sweet, and perhaps in the shape of something fun, winning their favor will indeed be "a piece of cake." Because candy is the panacea to any omiyage woe, here's a short list of tips on what to buy:

Do:

  • Buy something local that is individually wrapped (extra importance placed on individually wrapped).
  • Buy something distinctly American—like cowtails or salt water taffy—if you don't have a local candy shop near where you live.
  • Consider bringing some maple syrup if you live in an area that's famous for it. It's possible to buy it in Japan, but getting that authentic maple syrup is difficult.

Don't:

  • Buy licorice (99.9% of Japanese people I've given this to have hated it, and I now dole it out as a prank.)
  • Buy overly sweet candy, as most Japanese palettes don't accept our overly sweetened American food. They usually scream "Amai!", which means sweet, after every bite they take of standard American candy.
An example of a good quality—and pricey enough—whiskey to bring.

An example of a good quality—and pricey enough—whiskey to bring.

2. Alcohol

I don't want to start off this segment with a sweeping generalization about Japanese people, but as far as I can tell, they like to drink. There's a special term called "Nomyunication" that accurately describes what goes down most nights here among business people. See the bit of English at the end of the word? The part before that is "Nomu," which means "to drink," they add the "-cation" to refer to how most socializing in college (and—gasp!—high school) occurs.

Alcohol is a good idea for hosts without children. However, what with globalization and international trade being what it is today, you should aim to give them local brews. A nice bottle of American bourbon or some microbrews would excite many a citizen here.

The only downside to bringing alcohol is that it's heavy. The upside is that you'll probably get to lighten the bottle with your hosts over dinner one night.

Do:

  • Bring something American, like bourbon. Bring something that's hard to find in Japan, like Maker's Mark or Knob Creek.

Don't:

  • Bring something that an international corporation produces, like Johnny Walker or Bailey's. They already have it in Japan at reasonable prices.
If you're going to bring soap, make sure that it's a fancy, local one.

If you're going to bring soap, make sure that it's a fancy, local one.

3. Soap

Soap is a justifiable member of this list, but my tone towards it will be abrasive because I personally don't care for it as a gift. Who wants to get something as a present and then have their next step be going to the bathroom in order to use it? Sounds like food poisoning to me.

Personally speaking, soap has had a fairly high success rate as a gift, except for the ginger-citrus soap I got for my grandparents, who believe spit is a good antiseptic for minor cuts. Most people I've talked to seem to agree.

The key to buying a good bar of soap for your hosts is to go to a store with natural products and buy some neat-looking package that doesn't have a corporate logo on it. A mix of scents that are clearly defined would also be a plus so that it's not just the word "Fresh" written on the label.

At the very least, you'll ease your host's mind by giving them soap. It helps them know that you're a hygiene-conscious person, so they'll probably only wash the sheets once after you leave.

4. Ecobags

Much to my dismay, supermarkets in Japan have largely stopped providing free grocery bags. Instead, they encourage you to buy the supermarket's own personal bag and in exchange, they bag your groceries for you. If you give your hosts a neato-bandito eco-bag that has some sort of local flair to it, the recipient will be bagging their own groceries—but at least they'll be doing it in style.

Cons:

Your hosts lose the privilege of having their groceries bagged (but not all places do this anyway).

Pros:

Your hosts gain unfathomable levels of vogue and become grocery divas.

Tacky sweatshirts and t-shirts don't make the best gifts.

Tacky sweatshirts and t-shirts don't make the best gifts.

5. T-Shirts

Clothes, in general, are tricky to give as a present. What with sizes, taste, shrinking, and itchy tags, it's a good idea to stay away from garments when considering gifts to give to your Japanese hosts. Chances are your lovely gift will end up as pajamas, and eventually, 20 years down the line, your hosts will look at the holey t-shirt, covered in various stains, and think of you as the messy person who gave them what will by then be a rag with writing. There are, however, exceptions:

  1. Your hosts have oddly made a specific request of you.
  2. It's an "I Love NY" t-shirt, which according to my research on Japanese forums, seem to be popular.

To put it shortly, buy the t-shirt only if your last name is Versace or Lauren. If you're someone who has a hard time buying good-looking clothes even for yourself, don't try to buy clothing as a gift.

What to Remember About This Custom

  • Bring something that can be shared
  • Bring something that has a personal story behind it. If you bring some candy that's really gross but that you grew up with, the authenticity will override the bad taste.
  • Most importantly, bring something local so that there's no danger of you giving them a repeat gift. Add that "only-in-America" quality to your omiyage.

Select the Best Gift for the Person Described

For each question, choose the best answer for you.

  1. A young married couple with no kids
    • A t-shirt with a bald eagle on it, since that's the USA's national bird.
    • A bottle of red wine from your local winery
    • A family size box of Big League Chew
    • One Eco bag with a daffodil on it
    • Lemon and Butterscotch soap from a department store
  2. An old-ish married couple who are both retired
    • A purse and wallet combo from Macy's
    • Cinnamon scented soap, in both bar and pump form
    • Truffles made the hour before you left for the airport
    • A few bottles of a microbrew
  3. An acquaintance who's single, and lives in the city
    • Locally made liquorice of the twisted variety
    • An Eco bag that could easily double as a fashionable purse for either gender
    • Some American-y liquor that you found at your local package store
    • Soap in an intriguing shape with a matching dish, making one feel guilty about using it
    • A one size fits all hat from H&M
  4. A family with kids of all shapes and flavors
    • Two bottles of dessert wine with cute animals on them
    • Various shirts of the appropriate size with logos and text from local areas/businesses
    • A family size pack of Big League Chew and Cowtails
    • Two sturdy Eco bags with words or pictures relating to famous landmarks in your area
    • A pitiful amount of soap, nowhere near enough to possibly keep all those kids clean
  5. Your young male friend who studied abroad at your school, who now lives in the country
    • Funions, beef jerky, and a jar of salsa con queso plus some chips
    • Lavender and daffodil soap
    • A pair of Levi's in a size that should probably fit him
    • A heavy pack of his favorite beer from college

Scoring

Use the scoring guide below to add up your total points based on your answers.

  1. A young married couple with no kids
    • A t-shirt with a bald eagle on it, since that's the USA's national bird.: -5 points
    • A bottle of red wine from your local winery: +5 points
    • A family size box of Big League Chew: +1 point
    • One Eco bag with a daffodil on it: +1 point
    • Lemon and Butterscotch soap from a department store: +1 point
  2. An old-ish married couple who are both retired
    • A purse and wallet combo from Macy's: -1 point
    • Cinnamon scented soap, in both bar and pump form: +3 points
    • Truffles made the hour before you left for the airport: +5 points
    • A few bottles of a microbrew: +2 points
  3. An acquaintance who's single, and lives in the city
    • Locally made liquorice of the twisted variety: -2 points
    • An Eco bag that could easily double as a fashionable purse for either gender: +3 points
    • Some American-y liquor that you found at your local package store: +1 point
    • Soap in an intriguing shape with a matching dish, making one feel guilty about using it: +0 points
    • A one size fits all hat from H&M: -4 points
  4. A family with kids of all shapes and flavors
    • Two bottles of dessert wine with cute animals on them: -4 points
    • Various shirts of the appropriate size with logos and text from local areas/businesses: +3 points
    • A family size pack of Big League Chew and Cowtails: +5 points
    • Two sturdy Eco bags with words or pictures relating to famous landmarks in your area: +3 points
    • A pitiful amount of soap, nowhere near enough to possibly keep all those kids clean: -1 point
  5. Your young male friend who studied abroad at your school, who now lives in the country
    • Funions, beef jerky, and a jar of salsa con queso plus some chips: +3 points
    • Lavender and daffodil soap: -4 points
    • A pair of Levi's in a size that should probably fit him: +2 points
    • A heavy pack of his favorite beer from college: +5 points

Interpreting Your Score

A score between -18 and -6 means: ?

A score between -5 and 6 means: ?

A score between 7 and 14 means: ?

A score between 15 and 18 means: ?

A score between 19 and 23 means: ?

Quiz Results Explained

Now before your inner perfectionist starts stamping his or her feet, realize that you aren't supposed to get 100% on this quiz. This is because there's no such thing as a completely right or a completely wrong gift. In other words, as long as you don't get 60% or below, consider yourself perfectly prepared to pick out an appropriate gift.

Now you know how to buy as close to the perfect gift as is humanly possible. If you have any specific questions about gifts, feel free to ask in the comments!

© 2012 Akbok

Comments

Greg on April 22, 2019:

Just wanted to mention that the beef jerky mentioned in one of the quiz questions is now specifically forbidden to bring into Japan. If you try, it will at very least be confiscated, and you may face an unpleasant fine if you try to sneak it in.

Robert on August 23, 2017:

Hi Akbok. Great information. I will be following your hub. I have some questions for you. We are having a reunion with a Japanese family who have 3 girls, now aged 13-19 years old and a Korean family with a boy about 13 years old. We all lived together in the same apartment building 10 years ago and we all became friends. Should we buy individual gifts for each member of the 2 families, 4 children and 4 adults? Also, I am afraid of brininging anything already wrapped for fear that it will get smashed. Do they have gift-wrapping services in Japan? Is it appropriate to bring something from the airport?

mikeydcarroll67 on May 17, 2015:

I think it just depends on the people that you are visiting. Some may be open to other gift ideas and other families may want something different.

Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on June 22, 2012:

Bob Zermop: What a great comment to start off the hopefully soon to be long list. I can completely relate to your frustration with Japanese customs. Even after living here for numerous years I still end up doing horribly rude things, only to find out about it a few hours later from a family member. Thanks for reading and again for the comment!

Ruth: I love the criterion of 'being easy to pack' for choosing omiyage :D. Thanks for reading and for the compliment on the arbitrarily scored quiz!

Ruth on June 18, 2012:

LOL. I've tried t-shirts over and over again because they are easy to pack. bad. We bought eco bags for ourselves on a recent trip abroad. very chic. I'll remember that. Thanks, very fun to read and I LOVE the quiz.

Bob Zermop from California, USA on June 18, 2012:

Hahaha, this is a fantastic hub that I'll be referring back to. I've always been fascinated with Japan, but they still manage to confound me every time with another custom. Just when I think, "Hey, I finally understand the Japanese!", they pull something new on me. Bah :D

Thanks for this hub, and you also seem to have a couple of others on Japan that I will also check out. Voted up, interesting, useful, and awesome.