If you find yourself hoping for presents on your next birthday in Japan, or maybe even (Oh how thoughtful!) a surprise birthday party, you may be slightly disappointed. Birthday presents are often given only to close friends, lovers, or family in Japan. But before you start feeling lonely and friendless, you need to know a few things about how the Japanese feel about gift-giving.
Try asking your Japanese friends, “what is a present?” You’ll be told perhaps that it is something parents give kids, or lovers give each other on their birthdays.
Next, ask: “what is a gift?” But – you’ll say – it’s the same thing! Not quite in Japan. Purezento and gifuto hold two different meanings. A present is the same old birthday delight we all know. A gifuto, on the other hand, is something you send to relatives or close friends at certain times of the year to show gratitude or to show you are alive and well.
Your Japanese friend who does give you a birthday present must be someone very thoughtful. For your part, how would you like to surprise someone with these 5 gift and postcard-giving opportunities?
1. 年賀状 (New Year’s Postcard)
Try and send your Japanese friends a 年賀状 nengajo, or “New Year’s postcard”. Remember that mountain of cards you get on Valentine’s or Christmas? The Japanese send all their acquaintances New Year’s Day postcards in a similar manner.
When to give: Send your card so that it arrives BY New Year’s Day. Do not make the mistake of sending your postcard late December because by that time Japan Post will be swamped with the whole country’s population times the number of each person’s friends and relatives’ New Year’s postcards.
Who to give: Send one to just about everyone you count as your friend. Send one also to your school teacher via your school’s address. If someone sends you a card, send one back of your own, regardless if it’s late. If you get into the habit of sending your friends nengajo every year, you will feel very loved yourself, flipping through the hefty stack of nengajo you’ll receive. P.S. Handwritten New Years’ cards are extra-impressive.
2. Valentine’s Day Gifts
If you’re female, buy your male friends – and your female friends too if you’re generous – chocolates on Valentine’s Day.
Who to give: Your male friends, your teacher, and boss.
What to give: For friends, buy anything not too expensive at the nearby department store, or make a huge batch to show off your joshiryoku, “girl power” skills. Don’t make chocolates for one boy and one boy alone because that is practically saying you want to be his girlfriend. If you have a boyfriend, make his chocolates double, not triple the price of your giri choco or friendship chocolates. If you want to grab this chance to show how you feel towards that special someone, give it your best chocolate-making shot. If you’re not quite ready to confess your feelings, just give a regular giri choco.
As for the men, give chocolates to your female friends anyway. Nowadays 逆チョコ or gyakuchoko, chocolates from males given to females is a growing trend. Also, don’t forget to give back sweets on White Day, March 14th! Please note, chocolate from male to male might be considered… suspicious.
3. Seasonal Greeting Cards
No one would ever expect a 暑中見舞い shochumimai from a non-Japanese person, so surprise someone with a postcard between July 7th and August 6th. Too late? Then send a belated 残暑見舞いzanshomimai. Some Japanese send お中元、ochugen: sweets, juice, coffee, soaps, or beer, among other items, costing between 3000 and 5000 yen. Though you are not obligated, you can make someone happy in the hot, humid weather by sending ochugen.
In Winter the same custom is called 寒中見舞いkanchumimai for a postcard, or お歳暮oseibo for gifts sent from early December to the 21st of the month. Oseibo can be sweets, seafood (order it freshly delivered directly to their house from the supermarket service counter), beer, or ham.
Who to give shochumimai, ochugen, kanchumimai or oseibo? Normally it’s sent to family living far away, but you can send one to express deep gratitude for someone who has done or is doing you a big favor. Send a postcard to keep in touch with a friend, or maybe a postcard or gifts to a host family.
What should I not send? Don’t send socks because they symbolize “stepping on” your friend and mean disrespect.
4. Other Special Occasions
Celebrations are a perfect opportunity for gift-giving. If you have a friend who has gotten married or had a child, then show your well-wishes with a 結婚お祝い kekkon iwai for tying the knot, or with a 出産祝いshussan iwai for having a baby in the family.
When to send? For kekkon iwai, after you get official word, not from hearsay, of your friend’s wedding. Shussan iwai can be sent up to the baby‘s second month. Take care not to give something too expensive or your friend will feel obligated to return the present with something half the value. The standard is between 5000 to 10000 yen.
Now that you have glimpsed the beauty and heartwarming culture of gift-giving in Japan, you might not feel quite as lonely on your birthday or during the holiday seasons. Just try not to be too enthusiastic giving away gifts several times a year, or your wallet will start to feel lonely too.