The concept of omiyage (お土産), or “souvenirs/gifts” is an important part of Japanese culture, and if you visit friends in Japan, it helps to know some basic social rules.
I learned a lot about this the hard way: when my wife and I would visit Japan, we loaded up our suitcase with lots of little gifts, and distributed them to my wife’s relatives, friends, acquaintances, etc. Likewise, we would get a suitcase-full of stuff to bring back with us. When “baby” was born, we got a lot more gifts. 🙂
At first, I was really confused by this. We don’t have such an explicit tradition in the US. Yes, we buy gifts sometimes, especially for weddings and such, but we don’t really do it that often. We do buy a few souvenirs, but only for close friends or family. If we forget, it’s not a problem.
But over time I’ve come to understand a few things. In general, gift-giving is an important part of Japanese culture. It helps reaffirm relationships and give thanks for something people did for you in the past. This extends to travel too. If you travel somewhere, people often buy little omiyage souvenirs for all the people who couldn’t go with you. It shows that you care. Sometimes, this includes co-workers too, when you go on a personal vacation. Business trips are exempt from this social rule.
Also, when you travel, you’ll often see many shops that have plenty of omiyage options like pastries, snacks, souvenirs, etc. If you see a stack of boxes at shop, chances are, they’re omiyage gift-boxes.
So, here’s some basic rules omiyage as I understand them. Corrections and comments appreciated:
- Keep it nice, but cheap. If you give an expensive gift, it makes the other person obligated to reciprocate, which is an burden on them.
- If someone gives you a gift, try to give something back the next opportunity you have. It could be a year later, whatever. Just keep a mental “list” if you can. If you live in Japan, your “list” will grow over time. 😉
- When visiting someone’s house, it’s recommended that you bring some food too. This can be something simple like ice-cream, a beverage, snacks, whatever. When they visit your house, they will bring something too. This isn’t omiyage per se, but is kind of related.
- When you bring omiyage to someone, try to keep it in a small bag or wrapped somehow. It’s better presentation that way. Also, try to give it toward the end, so they don’t have to carry it the whole time.
- Don’t worry about gift receipts and such. If they don’t like it, they might pass it on to someone else.
- If you receive a gift you don’t like, you can still be gracious about it, and just give it to someone else later. I’ve seen people do it from time to time.
Anyhow, once you understand omiyage, you can build relationships with Japanese people you know and maybe even develop lasting friendships. 🙂