Gift giving in Japan is an important cultural tradition that serves to strengthen and maintain relationships and it’s big business too as Japan’s gift market in 2019 was worth 106,917 billion yen according to Yano Research Institute.

The two main gift giving seasons in Japan are Ochugen and Oseibo.

Ochugen is a summer gift given during July to those who have been good to you, as a token of your appreciation. The word “chugen” was originally a Taoist custom and refers to the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Since the Edo period (1603-1868), it has evolved into a custom of giving gifts to relatives and those who have been good to you as a way of thanking them for the Bon Festival.

End-of-year gifts or Oseibo are given in December to those who have been good to you on a daily basis as a way of thanking them at the end of the year. The origin of the year-end gift dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when shop keepers and merchants would send gifts to their landlords and business partners as a sign of their gratitude for the continued business support.

In modern Japan, Ochugen and Oseibo are still practiced and there is a mine field of rules and etiquette to be followed to ensure all is as it should be.

So, what is the difference between Ochugen and Oseibo gifts?

People are free to choose whatever gift they like but department stores and supermarkets allocate large sections of their stores with pre-packaged (and gift-wrapped) items making it a lot easier to choose what to buy, which is especially helpful if you have to send 10 – 20 gift packages each time.

As summer is hot and humid in Japan, food and drink suited to the climate are popular for Ochugen.  Beer and juice are popular drinks, while somen noodles and fruits such as watermelon, melon, grapes, peaches and mangoes are also standard items every year according to department store giant Daimaru.

For Oseibo year-end gifts, seafood such as crab and fugu (blowfish), which are perfect for Nabe (hot pot dishes) are very popular, as well as meat and ham that can be eaten in large groups during the New Year. Beer, soft drinks, and fruits are also constant favorites for year-end gifts. Other popular items common to both Ochugen & Oseibo include sweets and other Western confectionaries, as well as local gourmet foods from various regions.

How much do Ochugen and Oseibo gifts cost?

It’s possible to spend as little as 1,000 yen per gift but in general most people spend 3,000 to 5,000 yen per gift and if the gift is for someone who has been especially kind to you, perhaps 10,000 or more may be spent. In the case of gifts between corporations 5,000 yen is very common amount to spend per gift and large companies may send 100s or 1000s of these gifts twice a year.

Now this is where it becomes a bit of a mine field because if the gift is too expensive, it may make the recipient feel uncomfortable, so it’s important to consider the recipient and their circumstances before purchasing so that everyone feels comfortable. One of the reasons behind this lies in the custom of Okaeshi or giving a return gift (we shall leave that for another day)!

Gift-giving manners

It is very important to ask (or think) about the recipient’s taste and family structure before choosing a gift. There is no point sending a large pack of beer to an elderly man who doesn’t drink or a box of cured meats to a vegetarian.  Since it can become time consuming to call and check on these details, people often play it safe and purchase gifts that can be used by anyone such as a towel set, washing powder or bath salts. It’s not exciting but practical and ‘safe.’

Then you must consider how the gift is presented. It should be wrapped beautifully and if presented in person, placed in a gift bag.  Purchasing gifts in bulk at department stores has become very common now as it’s possible to order online and have the department store wrap and send them directly to the recipients.

One final but very important thing to consider is when you send the gift especially if you are sending a perishable item such as fruit or seafood.  In such a case, it’s common to call and advise the person that you will be sending something and ask if they be at home to receive the item. The Takkyubin (courier) system in Japan is extremely efficient and items sent to and from large cities will arrive the next day on Honshu – you can even stipulate the delivery time: morning, 2-4pm, 4-6pm, 6-8pm, 7-9pm!  In Tokyo, it’s not uncommon to have a delivery driver arrive at your doorstep at 10pm!! Wouldn’t you just love to see Australia Post provide the same level of service!!

The rules or gift-giving etiquette may seem a little troublesome but it can make all the difference in the impression you give to the recipient. The most important thing is to think carefully about the recipient’s situation.

However, once you start this tradition, you need to continue. This is why, whether it is for personal or business use, you need to think carefully about both your past and future relationships before deciding what to give and to whom.

Next time, we’ll delve a little deeper into other occasions for gift giving in Japan including how much the Okaeshi ‘return gift’ should be in monetary terms and if in fact it’s even necessary.  Stay tuned!