The Japanese art of gift-giving

Furoshiki Japanese wrapping cloth gift

Since we’re careening into that present-exchanging time of year, I thought you might enjoy a peek into the Japanese art of gift giving. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are MASTERS. If there was a medal for gifting, the Japanese would own the gold and the Guinness record for owning the gold.

But…how did they get so good?

The Japanese gift ambush

You invite a friend to meet you at your favorite cafe to catch up. She arrives with a gift. You drop off your kid’s friend and his mother runs out of the house to thrust a gift into your hands. You dash into a meeting, late, and everyone else is already there, opening gift bags from the member who just got back from visiting his mother in Hiroshima. Yours is on your chair.

And did you bring gifts for them? No. No, you didn’t. The shame!

I’ve lost count of how many bitter ex-pats I’ve heard wailing that nobody warned them about this. They weren’t prepared for the aggressive gifting. What are they supposed to do, keep a generic stockpile of return gifts all wrapped and ready in the hall closet? Or the car trunk? Where does it stop? How do you politely say in Japanese, “Can we agree that I won’t, if you won’t”?

Sadly, that won’t work. It would only show that you need a major hit with the clue stick, because…

It’s the lopsided discomfort that comes from “owing” someone that’s important in Japan

It defeats the purpose if you fork over a return gift right away. If you owe someone, you have reason to see them again. If they owe you, they’ll return the favor someday. As the relationship grows longer, the obligation grows deeper. And obligation is the stuff of which friendships—and alliances—are forged. No obligation, no relationship.

And trust me, it’s best to give in on this from the beginning, because the Japanese play a long game. I know Japanese families where the obligation goes back freaking generations, and believe me, they’re way past exchanging fancy bottles of whisky at New Year’s. They sign loan guarantees for each others’ kids. They legally vouch for each other when renting apartments. Children go to live with overseas members of the other family when they become exchange students. The next generation is given entry level jobs in the other family’s company, to train them up for taking over their own family business.

Okay, okay, so it can’t be gotten out of. How do you play this gift game?

The best gifts are not expensive, but they will cost you

1: The best gifts are scarce

Japanese Minnie Mouse

They’re something that can only be bought in a particular location, at a particular time of year, or they’re a limited edition. Loquats from Sakurajima, a lucky New Year’s arrow from the Meiji Shrine, Minnie Mouse dressed in kimono. Bonus points if the gift comes from somewhere recently visited and shows that the giver was thinking about the giftee, even while traveling.

2: The best gifts take effort

Custome maneki neko cat figures

They require an investment of time, research, special arrangements, or personalizing. A batch of candied yuzu peel you made yourself, fresh tofu ordered from the restaurant where you ate a memorable meal together last winter, a maneki neko figure painted to look like the giftee’s real cat.

3: The best gifts are rare

Square watermelon in Japan

Maybe it’s the first produce of its kind in that season, or it’s the only one of its kind, or it comes from a renowned maker whose output is limited. The first Kyoho grapes, a specially-grown square watermelon, a tea cup from Hamada Shoji’s kiln.

4: The best gifts honor the quirks

Mister Donut Ponde ringu glazed donut

The best gifts show that the giver thought about the giftee’s likes and dislikes and chose the gift especially for them. Not just any Mister Donut, a glazed pon-de-ringu. A warm hat, but knitted from non-scratchy yarn. A tote bag emblazoned with their favorite kind of dog.

5: The best gifts win “best of breed”

Fresh tofu in natural bamboo container

They can be something ordinary, but they’re the best in their category. For example, a $10 gift of handmade tofu, not a $10 bottle of wine.

Notice that “expensive” isn’t on the list? That’s because expensive is appreciated, but the other qualities are much preferred.

Okay, got it. Whew.

But wait. We’re not done yet.

It’s not a gift if it’s not wrapped.

I hear you groaning, but here’s where Japan slides in with a huge win. Their greatest gifting invention is the furoshiki. It’s a square of cloth that makes it possible to wrap any gift in less than a minute.

Wrapping a book in furoshiki

And it’s not just fast…

Weird shapes and sizes? Bring ’em on!

Furoshiki Japanese wrapping cloth gift

If you’ve ever tried to wrap something weird-shaped or huge, you’ll appreciate the genius of swathing it in forgivable fabric, knotting it securely, and letting the natural folds and creases be a feature, not a bug. Most Japanese people have a stack of furoshikis in various sizes, so they’re sure to have one that’s just right for any gift emergency.

And it’s far cheaper than paper, ribbons and bags, because…

They keep the gift, but not the wrapping.

After wrapping your gift in your furoshiki, you grab it by the knotted part to tote it to the get-together (bonus: you don’t need a shopping bag to carry it either). To present it, you set it on the table in front of you, unknot it and peel back the wrapping. You pick up the gift inside with both hands and offer it to your friend. Then you fold up the furoshiki and take it home. No fuss, no mess, no waste, done.

Stack of furoshiki Japanese wrapping cloths
Unless you have a hard time knowing when to quit collecting those gorgeous seasonal squares of fabric. Because then you’ve got another problem…

If you’d like to wrap gifts in furoshiki this holiday season, all you need are some squares of thin, supple cloth (scarves are good!) and some instructions. There are lots of nice books and step-by-step directions for wrapping various shapes of things online. Photo thanks to Jennifer Playford’s book, Wrapagami for the beautifully-wrapped furoshiki examples I used here

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

2 thoughts on “The Japanese art of gift-giving

  1. I especially enjoyed the gift giving section. Older women (my age!) never come empty handed, no matter how small the occasion! I keep a stash of hostess gifts (lots of chocolate!).

    I’m glad to know it is ok to take the wrapping home !

    Liked by 2 people

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