I am leaving for Japan next week, but I've already started packing. It's not that I'm bringing an elaborate wardrobe or anything (my clothes will be various shades of black and grey basically) but I have to get a lot of お土産 (おみやげ omiyage). An omiyage is a gift from a trip, to give to family and acquaintances at your destination, whether it's home for you or not. The kanji that make up the word omiyage are 土 (earth or ground) and 産 (product), so theoretically it's a local product from wherever you went to. (Omiyage can also mean 'souvenir', but here I'm going to talk about omiyage as gifts.)
Going to Japan, if you are Japanese or have lived there long enough to be part of a community (or you have Japanese relatives), is an expensive proposition because of that omiyage obligation after a trip. In my case, I'm going to have to dedicate at least half of one suitcase to omiyage, since I haven't been back there in such a long time.
Omiyage-gifts go a bit beyond little souvenir chotchkes. They have to be attractive, and they have to be gift wrapped. Gifts are given not just after traveling, but on many other occasions too. Gifts help to oil the cogs of Japanese society.
The serious business of gift-giving
Tokyo Station omiyage-shop. Photo credit: williacw
In Japan, the gift-giving or 贈答 (ぞうとう zoutou) business is so well oiled that you can easily pick up appropriate, beautifully wrapped gifts at a moment's notice. But when you travel, it can get a bit more difficult. Of course hordes of well heeled Japanese tourists have alerted many businesses, especially on the high end of the fashion and other industries in major tourist destinations, to the need for well-wrapped gifts. In places like Paris there are even businesses dedicated to smoothing the way of the anxious gift-shopping Japanese tourist. (These types of businesses exist in other major cities too, but I seem to notice them particularly in Paris.)
Rules of omiyage as gifts
If you are already deep into Japanese society, or have Japanese relatives, you are probably well acquainted with your omiyage-gift obligations. If you're not though, here are some basic (tongue in cheek) rules to follow. (Do remember that younger (say, under 35 or 40) people don't really go along with all these rules, necessarily. If you're dealing with older or more traditional folk though, it's different.)
The best omiyage is something that can be consumed
Japanese homes -- which are usually tiny, especially in the cities -- are typically already overstuffed with Stuff. You don't want to burden the recipient with something that have to find space for. The gift-giving culture is one reason why things like outrageously expensive melons exist in Japan. An expensive, elaborately wrapped melon makes a great gift.
Food is a great gift. (I plan on bringing several boxes of Swiss chocolates as gifts.) Cosmetics can also be good - perfume, expensive lipstick, etc. (At one time every other Japanese girl was clamouring for Dior or Chanel lipsticks.) Wine and other alcoholic beverages are a good bet too, especially if the country you're coming from is known for them.
The second best omiyage is something expensive with a label on it
The perfect gift for any household with a female in it is an expensive scarf from a well known label. See also: perfume, brand name cosmetics. Expensive ties are a possibility for males, for for them I would stick to food or drink gifts.
The third best omiyage is something for the kids
Remembering the rule about not adding to storage problems, go for small items such as t-shirts, small toys, etc.
Don't gift anything homemade unless you really know the recipient
For the first meeting, don't bring your Aunt Jane's amazing fruit cake, even if it is out of this world. for the fourth or fifth meeting it's probably ok.
Your intended recipient really wants it.
Your recipient may initially act coy about accepting the gift. Just keep politely insisting they take it. It's a sort of weird ritualistic dance.
The recipient may not open the box in front of you.
Don't be surprised or shocked or disappointed if the recipient just puts the gift away, without even opening it. This is fairly usual, especially for people who get tons of gifts. I still remember seeing the 押し入れ (おしいれ oshi-ire, a typical closet of sorts built into all traditional style Japanese homes, where futon are folded and stored) of the father-in-law of one of my uncles, who used to be an executive for a big company. It was packed with boxes of unopened omiyage.
If your gift is perishable, you will want to warn them about it. Here's a short and handy phrase:
すぐ召し上がって下さい。 すぐめしあがってください sugu meshiagatte kudasai. = Please consume right away.
As a non-Japanese, you aren't really expected to bring omiyage
As a non-Japanese person you always have the out of real or pretended ignorance. Japanese people usually assume, rightly or wrongly, that non-Japanese people are utterly unfamiliar with the rules of Japanese society. If you want to save money, you can rely on this.
In my case though, this is not an option...