When I first started dating the woman who would become my wife, we were young, irresponsible, and worked low-paying jobs. Consequently, and not helped by our love for going out to dinner, we were generally strapped for cash.
Her birthday happened to fall a month after we both realized we were in a this-is-the-one relationship, and it plunged me into an indecisive, Hamlet-esque agony. Did I scrimp and save to get something extravagant? Or did I just not get her a present this year? Because, I thought, some cheap little trinket would be far worse than no gift at all.
Then I remembered a pretty low-key birthday from a few years ago, just some friends and I. At some point in the evening, one of my buddies very quietly handed me a small package with a harmonica inside. “I thought you might like to play,” was his simple explanation.
He was right—sort of. I have zero musical talent. I can’t even hum along to music without feeling like the singer is somehow disgusted with me. But it was, truly, the thought that counted. That he thought, “I bet Brian would like this,” far outweighed my musical inaptitude. It was a very inexpensive gift, but it meant the world.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my friend was honoring a Japanese custom where it isn’t the gift, but the presentation, that counts. The ritual. The thoughtfulness—in a very literal sense. The idea that you are thinking about and valuing someone—and how that can change the entire experience of not only receiving, but giving, gifts.
Understanding Japanese Gift Giving Rituals
There are a couple of different ways to understand the word “ritual.” There’s a negative view which implies a sort of rote following of barely-understood customs, but then the word “ritual” can also connote a certain wisdom passed through the ages—a ceremony that has been imbued with real and true importance through the collected weight and love of those for whom it has meaning.
In many ways, the latter is what Japanese gift giving embodies. It’s filled with old traditions and customs, the most important of which is that the gift itself barely matters. It’s the act of giving, of showing someone that you actually care about them as a person, that’s important.
Because when you get down to it, gift giving is a sacrifice. A small one, but still. The culture doesn’t demand big gifts, and indeed encourages small ones—it’s truly the thought that counts.
Simple Rules for Gifting in Japan
Of course, every ritual is built around, in essence, a set of rules—and there are some important ones in Japan:
- Giving gifts is very important among colleagues. We all work, some in an office where we get to know each other intimately, and some in telecommuting jobs where you have to make an effort to know people. Our co-workers sometimes annoy us. We complain about them more than nearly anyone, it sometimes seems. But the reason, I think, is that we don’t always see them as people with their own lives, their own hopes, fears, and little gnawing sadnesses. But what if you invited them into the gift giving ritual of Japan?
In Japan, gift giving between co-workers is common on both January 1st and on July 15th. This builds a connection, requiring you to think about what they might want, and, as a result, about who they are outside your shared office space. In this context, gift giving becomes a way to extend empathy and acceptance.
- Gifts should be beautifully or creatively wrapped. One of the most important parts of gift giving in Japan is the wrapping, or presentation. Gifts are expected to be incredibly well-wrapped, often in cloth called furoshiki. I know—it seems like way too much effort for a simple gift. Most of us are still like children, ripping off the paper without a thought to see what’s underneath. But Japan’s wrapping ritual asks you to take a step back and realize that the gift is secondary to the act of giving itself. It’s customary to appreciate the wrapping, and to imply that you won’t be disappointed by the gift, because the actual object isn’t really what’s of value.
A note on wrapping, if you are gifting in Japan. Be aware of the importance of colors. You could be giving off some unintentional, and unwelcome, vibes.
- Gifts are opened in private. For many of us, this is maddening. We give a gift and we can’t wait to see eyes open big, and get a huge, gushing thank you, because it’s just what they always wanted. But is that actually why we give gifts, to get that validation? There’s nothing wrong with that, honestly, but maybe we’d be able to separate ourselves from one-upmanship and anxiety if we recognized that the mere act of handing over a gift was the end of our story, instead of desiring the gratification that comes with gratitude.
Bringing the Gift Giving Into Our Own Lives
There are many, many rules in the Japanese gift giving experience, and if you are traveling for work, pleasure, or engaging with the culture in any real way, you should take the time to learn the detailed ins and outs of the ritual—I barely scratched the surface of its complexity or richness.
But I think we can bring some of these ideas into our own life. That’s what I did with my then girlfriend and now wife. I ended up going to a used record store and finding albums by some old musicians that she always mentioned. She already had a cool, vintage record player—and a love for music.
Here’s the thing: any other time I’ve bought a gift for someone, especially a girl I was courting, I went all out buying gifts—gifts that would show how interesting I was, something that they wouldn’t be expecting, but that would blow their mind, and force them to realize how lucky they were to have me in their life.
I don’t think that was a conscious decision or expectation, but I think we can all easily fall into that trap—and it’s the opposite focus from Japanese traditions. What I’ve learned is that a gift shouldn’t have to be enormous, and, most of all, it shouldn’t be about the giver. It should be about the person receiving it, and simply acknowledging how much they mean to you. That you care about them. That you see them and love them.
That might be the most important thing I learned about gift giving. It’s not about getting appreciation, it’s about showing it.