A guide to Japanese gift giving

A whole different set of rules.
A whole different set of rules.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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“Do not touch the kamidana,” said my wife. It was the Christmas season, and we had just returned to my in-laws’ house in rural Japan after nearly a year in Canada. I was on tiptoes, peering at the miniature wooden shrine on the shelf. “If you awaken the god you must continue to care for it. And that can be a pain in the ass.”

Day 14 of Quartz’s 25 Days of Exchange
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Almost every Japanese home includes a kamidana (神棚), literally a “god shelf,” a small altar devoted to the household god, or kami. Many Japanese families will make regular offerings of water, rice, and fruit to the household kami, just as regular offerings sake and rice are presented to the gods that are housed in Japan’s many Shinto shrines.

My wife did pay attention to the Buddhist altar, or butsudan (仏壇) in the living room. She presented it with an offering of some booze (Suntory Old whisky) and a sealed package of dango—sweetened rice dumplings on a stick. These were the favorite treats of some of the family ancestors “remembered” in the Buddhist altar.

Colonel Sanders KFC Christmas in Japan
Colonel Sanders dressed as St. Lucy at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tsuruga, Fukui, Japan.
Image: Nevin Thompson

We had just returned to Japan for the winter holidays.

The ancestors taken care of, the next job now that we had just returned to Japan was to get ready for Christmas. This meant ordering enough Kentucky Fried Chicken for about 20 people. My sister-in-law was taking care of the strawberry shortcake that, along with KFC, has been an essential part of every Japanese Christmas since a savvy grassroots marketing campaign was launched in 1974.

My job was to go to the bank to withdraw a big stack of 10,000 yen notes (approximately $95). We usually gave our nieces and nephews 10,000 yen each at Christmastime as otoshidama, (お年玉). Otoshidama are usually given out on New Year’s, but we like to get into the Christmas spirit by handing out out these packets of money a little early.

Although less than 2% of Japanese people identify as Christians (the other 98% of households belong to a Buddhist denomination and will regularly visit the neighborhood Shinto shrine), Christmas is a big holiday in Japan. It’s generally thought that Christmas was introduced back in 1904 both as a way to help modernize the country as Japan sought to catch up with the West, and also to encourage more shopping at year-end. Today, shoppers typically spend the equivalent of $1.2 billion on presents, toys, and cake. In fact, Japanese people spend about as much on Christmas as they do on Valentine’s Day, and on the same sorts of things. Ever since the booming, bubbly 1980s, Christmas Eve is better known as Japan’s hottest date night, with loads of cash being spent on romantic dinners, booze, luxury handbags, and, of course, love hotels.

My wife and I had no time for a romantic night out. On our way to pick up fried chicken for Christmas Eve, we also had to pick out some oseibo (お歳暮)—mid-winter gifts for relatives and people who had helped us out over the years. I like to give a big box of processed ham, while my wife prefers to give out scented hand towels. When she worked as a clerical worker (better known as an “office lady” or OL) she used to grumble about giving her boss oseibo at year-end and chuugen (中元) at mid-year, in June.

Visiting Hachiman Shrine on New Year's Day in Tsuruga, Fukui
Visiting Hachiman Shrine on New Year’s Day in Tsuruga, Fukui.
Image: Nevin Thompson

A subordinate, or kohai (後輩), typically give these presents to someone with a higher social rank—a sempai (先輩), or “senior” member of the group who ideally acts as both a boss and a mentor. It’s related to the concept of osewa (お世話), of being under the care of someone like a supervisor at work. When my wife and I ran a “cram school” or juku (学習塾, gakushuu juku; an after-school tutoring service focusing on exam prep), twice each year we often received presents of rice, cooking oil, and even cases of beer from our students’ parents. It was a great way to stock up on tea towels.

More tricky was determining just how much money to give as a wedding gift, or oshugi (お祝儀). Once again, everything depends on rank, and the relationship one has with who’s getting married. Give too little, and you look stingy. Give too much, and you look arrogant and needlessly ostentatious. Funerals, with their practice of bringing koden, (香典) a funeral offering for the deceased, present the same challenge. A supervisor or senior family member may pass on the equivalent of hundreds of dollars. It’s all part of the concept of osewa—taking care of one’s subordinates.

The money enclosed in the ornate oshugi and koden envelopes is typically used to cover the cost of the wedding or funeral. These envelopes are typically collected by a coworker or kohai. The envelopes are immediately opened, the money counted, who gave what is carefully recorded. This is because of the practice of hangaeshi (半返し), where wedding guests and funeral attendees are given a gift half of the value of the cash amount they gave in the first place. I usually get towels.

On my way home from the bank, my back pocket stuffed with 100,000 yen in cash (about $1,000) to be handed out to my nieces and nephews, as well as my sons, on Christmas Day, I stopped to say a prayer to Izasawakenomikoto (伊奢沙別命), the kami or tutelary deity housed in the local shrine. I dropped a copper 10-yen coin in the offering box, pulled on the hemp hawser to ring the bell that would wake the sleeping god, and made a short prayer: I hoped I’d get some of that delicious prepared ham as an oseibo present.