Giving gifts in Japan

Recently, my wife and I were invited for brunch with friends who live on the other side of Tokyo. While walking from the station to their apartment, we searched for a shop where we could buy them a gift—something interesting, tasty, and not too expensive. We bought a box of chocolate orange pastries from a coffee shop. Perfect!

Arriving at their apartment we handed over the pastries and later ate them as ‘brunch dessert’, if such a thing exists?! I also passed them the second gift I’d brought with me. I got out some pieces of paper, fitted them together and, ‘Voila!’ a small, multi-coloured origami cube.

Having lived in Japan for many years, we have been well-trained in its gift-giving culture. Now, wherever we are in the world, it is hard not to give something when we visit someone. It just seems wrong to fail to give something. Gift giving is a core element of Japanese culture.

We have been on the receiving end of some gifts too.

The wrong flowers

Early in our time in Japan, we were friends with a British couple who served as English teachers at a church in Sapporo, northern Japan. On one occasion, they kindly brought us some flowers; lovely and they understood about gift-giving too!

However, we had seen flowers like these in supermarkets—a mixed bunch of pink, blue, white and yellow flowers. The label on these bunches of flowers is ‘Bukka’, which is the way to pronounce the word comprising the two characters ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Flower’.

These dear Christian friends had bought us flowers intended for a Buddhist family altar or grave. Oops! We explained all this and concluded, ‘It would probably be better not to buy these flowers for others—it might really confuse them. We don’t mind though, because we know that all flowers are made by our Creator God.’

Gift giving in Japan is deeply influenced by culture and religion.

Packaging

Gifts must be wrapped. Department stores have special wrapping counters, where gifts are wrapped in paper held fast with just one piece of sticky tape! (I’ve not learned how to do this yet.)

Biscuits (cookies) often come in exquisitely designed tin boxes that you will to want to keep, long after the contents have been consumed. Cakes in Japanese bakeries, or those used in the tea ceremony are, quite simply, works of art. Sweets may have designs from the place where they are made impressed upon them.

It can sometimes seem that the packaging is more important than the gift in this gift-giving culture.

As missionaries to Japan we are seeking to give the best gift imaginable to the people of Japan: the good news of Jesus Christ.

Please pray for us as we try to integrate with Japan’s gift-giving culture, but not be influenced wrongly and end up giving a really confusing gift. Pray also that we learn how to ‘package’ the gift of Jesus, so that this ultimate gift is treasured long after the delivery person has left.

By Peter, an OMF missionary

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