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

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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, 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, 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.

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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, seems 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.

© 2012 Akbok

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