The giving of gifts in Japan is so much more than it is in the west. It is a form of social communication with a set of rules all its own. Gifts can be given to say thank you or sorry. Gifts are also given to people you will be working with that you are meeting for the first time. Likewise, when visiting someone's home for the first time it is customary to bring a gift. Knowing how much to spend on a present for someone can be tricky; you don't want to spend too much as this will cause tension and put the recipient into "social debt" with you. Likewise, you don't want to insult your host or new friend by cheapening out. For newcomers to Japan, it is perhaps best to ask for the help of Japanese friends when choosing what to buy.

Do's and Don't's

Do not give green tea as it is reserved for funerals and memorial services. Combs are a big no-no since the word for comb, kushi, is a combination of ku (suffering) and shi (death), it is a symbolic double whamie that would put you on the wrong side of anyone. Clothes that touch the skin can not be given to the elderly, as it is seen as too intimate a gift. Socks are an exception to this rule. Lastly, never give sets of four, since the word for four also means death.

When giving a gift to someone do not be surprised if they put it aside without opening it. This is standard Japanese custom. It is a face saving technique, should the gift not meet the standards or expectations of the receiver, it prevents the possibility of embarrassment. In my experience, this is not always the case, however, and I have watched my gifts both pushed aside and saved for a later time, as well as ripped open before my eyes. When receiving a gift, I ask if it is OK to open it right then and there, or in situations that are more formal, I have done the traditional thing.

Handmade things are not as highly appreciated as store bought gifts as they are considered cheaper. This is not true of home baked items, however, and I have seen my fellow teachers gush over my cookies and birthday cake. Depato store gifts, wrapped at the store with labeled paper, are very much appreciated. This is because it shows that you have made the effort to go downtown, rather than to a local store.

Wrap carefully in Japanese rice paper, the most important part of the gift. Content is less important than form. As you reach the level of Gift Master, your need to give and receive actual gifts will gradually disappear. A hollow box of rice paper will be enough.

Wicked Japanese for the Business Traveler

Wrapping is terribly important and beyond the scope of this write up. It is probably best that you have important gifts (for your boss, for local VIPs) wrapped by the professionals. There are books dedicated to the subject and only the brave dare wrap gifts by themselves.

If you are offered a gift, it is customary to initially refuse it, perhaps as often as two or three times. The giver of the gift will be well acquainted by this verbal dance and insist that you take the gift anyway. It is known that in the end you will accept the present.

Omiyage Madness

Omiyage are gifts of souvenirs brought back from a holiday trip. Leaving work to take a holiday entails a sense of shame or of "letting the team down" and it is imperative that the perpetrators of this crime soothe relations at the office or workplace by bringing back a small trinket for each and every co-worker. Omiyage need not be large or expensive. Often, a box of cookies or speciality baked goods from the area of travel are enough. It is also much easier to transport a box or two of biscuits than individual gifts. Supervisors and other head honchos should be presented with slightly more expensive and individual gifts.

Now, the ever resourceful Japanese have come up with a very unique solution to the omiyage obligation. Stores located near major train stations throughout the country sell specialties from every region you might have traveled to. Instead of lugging back pickled vegetables from Kyushu, you can pick them up in Tokyo when you disembark from the train. Even if someone finds out that you did your shopping locally, your obligation has been fulfilled and everyone is happy.

People have also thought of new ways to make use of gifts purchased at these stores. The story goes that they are commonly used as alibis: after a weekend spent at the love hotel, a gift purchased at a regional specialty store is a face-saving proof that a wayward salaryman was actually on a business trip.

Japan Lonely Planet

Gifts of Cash

Gifts of cash are presented in a special envelope (noshibukuro). These are tied with a special cord in either a knot or a bow depending on the occasion. The color of the cord is likewise significant. It is very important to never give a monetary gift of 4000¥, 40, 000¥ etc, since the number four can be translated as shi (death). Finally, it is customary to give crisp, new bills for a wedding, as it symbolizes the couple's new life together, and to give old notes for a funeral, as it is symbolic of being caught unprepared for an untimely death.

Occasion           Cord Colour                  Style      Salutation
Wedding            Red&White or Gold&Silver     Knot       Kotobuki or Gokekkoniwai
Congratulations    Red&White                    Bow        Oiwai
Thank you          Red&White                    Bow        Onrei
Get Well           Red&White                    Knot       Omimai
Job Transfer       Red&White                    Knot       Gosenbetsu
Buddhist Funeral   Black&White or Yellow&Gray   Knot       Okouden or Goreizen
Christian Funeral  Black&White or Yellow&Gray   Knot       Ohanaryou or Goreizen

Times for gift giving

Oshogatsu (New Year)

Friends and associates exhange postcards through the mail. Cards posted by the 20th of December will be held by the post office and delivered on the 1st of January. Children get cash from their relatives.


This is the year end exchange of food, coffee and liquor that can be used during the holidays, generally given to superiors. Gifts should be in the 3, 000¥-5, 000¥ range. A thank you card is generally given and a return gift is often presented at Ochugen. Popular gifts of whiskey, ham, cooking oil, fruit and canned goods, are available, prepackaged, at special areas in department stores. The gifts can be delivered for you by the store, but it is considered good manners to deliver the gifts yourself.


This is similar to the gift exchange during Oseibo. The time for presenting gifts of easily prepared food is strictly between the 1st and 13th of July. Again, you should aim for the 3, 000¥-5, 000¥ range. Like at Osiebo gifts and delivery services are available at department stores.

Go-Kekkon Iwai (Wedding)

Usually a substantial cash gift is given at the reception desk upon arrival. How much you give will depend on your relationship with the person who invited you. For an aquaintance, you can get away with 20, 000¥. For closer friends and relatives, you should be giving in the 30, 000-60, 000¥ range. (This is hundreds of dollars!!!) If you also want to give a gift, it should be mailed to the bride's house a week prior to the ceremony. Guests usually receive a bag of gifts after the ceremony and occasionally newlyweds may bring back gifts from their honeymoon.

Go-Shussan Iwai (New Baby)

Gifts of toys, clothes and cash are given a week after the birth of a healthy child. It is important that you make sure that the baby is healthy before presenting the new parents with any gifts. A return gift of a simple wooden bowl or cup with the baby's name on it is usually given.

Ososhiki (Funeral)

Buddhist funerals are held on the Chinese calendar funeral day closest to the death. Guests usually bring 3, 000¥. Guests usually receive a gift in return. At one time it was standard to give department store coupons to guests, that was, until hoards of unknown guests began to arrive and take more than their fair share.

Omimai (Hospital Visit)

It is usual to give cut flowers or books when visiting someone in the hospital. Plants are not given as the roots symbolize a long stay in the hospital. Likewise, camellias are not given as the way the blossons drop reminds the Japanese of death.

Go Nyu-gaku Iwai (Entrance into School)

School related items like books and maps are given following a child's entry into elementary school. Gifts are usually in the 1, 000¥-2, 000¥ range. And thank you card is usually given in return and occasionally sekiban (rice cooked with red beans) is also given. This is a very nice gesture to make to a neighbour or friend.

Tanjobi Iwai (Birthday)

Traditionally everyone's birthday was celebrated at New Year's, but now birthday parties and gift gifting are common among the younger generations. The type and value of the gift will depend on your relationship.

Hikkoshi Aisatsu (Moving in)

On moving into a building or neighbourhood it is customary for newcomers to introduce themselves to neighbours and present them with a small gift. Traditionally, this should be a dish towel and specially wrapped boxes of these are available at most department stores.

Osenbetsu (Leaving a Town or Job)

During the weeks preceeding your departure from a job or town, there may be many farewell parties thrown in your honour. Gifts and money may be given as a token of appreciation for your hardwork. It is usual to send postcards to those people who gave you gifts or who helped you during your tenure.

Sources: JET Handbook
Culture Shock: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette
Japan Lonely Planet

Living Japanese Style

A very big thank you goes out to Shro0m for editing, suggestions and helping me clean up the layout.

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