Japan Gifting Etiquette
  • In Japan, it is polite to offer or receive a gift using both hands. It is customary to wait until later when the giver is not present, to open the gift.
  • When making an initial visit or sales call, it is common to bring a small gift. O-seibo (year end) and O-chugen (midsummer) are the main gift-giving times. Japanese give gifts to anyone they are indebted to — superiors, subordinates, colleagues, and good clients. Gifts received are repaid with something of comparable or slightly higher value on a suitable occasion, not necessarily right away.
  • Gifts should be nicely wrapped; presentation is as important as content. In Japan, you’ll be expected to put more effort into the wrapping than the gift itself, so make sure to wrap your presents well, and expect lavish wrapping with beautiful personal details in return.
  • Flowers with ominous hidden meanings are lotus blossoms, lilies and carnations, all of which are associated with funerals. Obviously, these flowers are to be avoided on special occasions like birthdays or Valentines’ Day.
  • Potted plants are thought to signify illness, so keep the cactuses to yourself!
  • February 14th is a day for women to gift the men in their life (be they colleagues, relatives, or romantic partners) with chocolate gifts. The chocolate takes two forms: Giri-choco (‘Obligation / Duty Chocolate’) and Honmei-choco (‘Chocolate of Love’.)
  • Exactly a month later on March 14th, or ‘White Day’, it’s the men’s turn to reciprocate with gifts of a higher value. Usually the value will be three times that of the women’s gifts (because of the Japanese expression “Sanbai Gasehi” or “triple in return” referring to the men’s obligation to triple the value of gifts given to them by women.) These gifts most commonly take the form of white chocolate, white lingerie, cookies, or jewellery.

The origin of "White Day" on March 14th

So, why are the festivities spread out among two separate days a month apart from one another, and not celebrated simultaneously as in the U.S.?

The origin story of this tradition is an interesting one, as ‘White Day’ was only invented in the 1970’s. Prior to this, it had only been the women who would give out presents on February 14th, until a disgruntled woman wrote into a magazine to suggest that women should get their own day, a day when their gifts would be returned – with anything, ‘even a marshmallow.’

Confectionary company Ishimura Manseido jumped on this idea as a way to market marshmallows to men, coining March 14th ‘Marshmallow Day’ – a day when men would return the gifts given to them by women a month prior. As the tradition spread to include a variety of different white confectionary, the day became known simply as ‘White Day.’

You could call this capitalism at its finest, or a cynical marketing strategy that went really well – but we’re choosing to call it ‘Two different excuses to eat chocolate’.

Don’t forget, it is a social obligation to bring back a souvenir (or Omiyage) if you have been on vacation, as a way to apologise for your absence. Failure to bring back an Omiyage for your friends and colleagues is considered rude.

Copyright: Julia Wimmerlin
Japan Gift Etiquette
Copyright: Julia Wimmerlin

Photography Credits

Julia Wimmerlin

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