Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Japanese Culture of Gift Giving

After many years of absence from Japan I find myself once again involved in a personal and semi-business arrangement with a Japanese man who shows respect for culture and ritual. And I am reminded of that Culture of Gift Giving I was first exposed to during the years I lived in Japan thirty years ago.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meetings this man's wife for the first time. Quite unexpectedly, else I would have come prepared with a suitable gift of respect. To be introduced to ones wife is a mark of acceptance and importance in Japanese culture where business relationships rarely cross the line into personal family relationships. So it is a great honor to have be allowed within that sphere. She was most gracious and considerate. We are meeting again tomorrow and I plan on presenting a small and exquisitely-wrapped gift to honor the tradition of meeting. For those finding themselves in similar situations, I present below, the culture of gift-giving in Japan.

Gift WrappingIn Japan gift giving is an art form, representing friendship, respect, and gratitude. The ceremony is important; the gift is always in a gift box, or beautifully wrapped in quality paper, and given with great respect. Because the symbolism is what’s important, frequently the actual gift may be very modest.

There’s an expectation a gift will be offered at the first meeting, and gifts will continue to be part of your business dealings. Come prepared to that first meeting with a beautifully wrapped, quality gift that’s not extravagant. It’s a gesture that you’re looking forward to a long lasting relationship.

One custom is to reciprocate with a gift that’s half the value of a gift received. If your gift is too expensive, it could create an awkward situation, even at half the value.

Don’t be surprised however, especially if you’re a high level executive, to receive a lavish gift. The Japanese executive will consider your status and the business relationship when selecting your gift. As I said, it’s an art form.

If you have a gift to present, don’t pop up at the end of the meeting with it. You don’t want to surprise your Japanese associate. The proper procedure is to tell him or her sometime during the meeting that you have a small gift, or gifts, you’ll want to present at the end of the meeting. This verbal cue respects the protocol, and allows the opportunity to make arrangements for any additional people who may need to come into the meeting for the presentation.

When you offer your gift, hold it in both hands and bow, saying words that let the person know, ‘this gift is insignificant in comparison to the importance of the relationship’. Saying it’s “a small thing”, even if the gift is expensive, conveys this sentiment.

The Japanese will politely refuse a gift once or twice before accepting it. And it will not be opened in your presence. When a gift is offered to you, follow this same ceremony. Politely refuse once or twice, and then accept it with both hands, saving it to open later.

In addition to gifts being routinely given for various occasions or meetings, there are two ‘gift giving’ seasons each year. One is mid-summer (O-Chugen) and the other at the end of the year (O-Seibo). A gift should be given during each of these seasons.

Gifts of food or liquor (cookies, expensive candy, and fruit) are always good choices especially for modest gifts. If you’re bringing a gift from your home country, make sure it’s not ‘made in Japan’. And don’t select company items with your logo that may be a promotional item and look cheap.

Because of the long held traditions, you may choose to shop for, or at least have your gifts wrapped by a store, after you arrive in Japan. This way you’ll know your gift will be correct.

In Japan symbolism is important. A gift with a pair of items is considered lucky, but sets of four or nine are unlucky.

Plus, the number 4 also means death; and the color red is associated with funerals, so don’t give a pen with red ink, and don’t write out a card using red. Books aren’t appropriate; and sharp objects like knives, scissors, and letter openers symbolize ‘severing a relationship’.

Rather than looking at the ceremony and symbolism as obstacles, learn about them so you’re comfortable. Then this wonderful tradition of exchanging gifts will add to the enjoyment of your business relationships.

More on Japanese etiquette here

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