Giving gifts is a very important part of Japanese culture! Gifts are appropriate and even expected on many occasions.
For example, if you go on vacation, you need to bring back gifts for all your co-workers because you caused them suffering by not being there to do your work. You need to bring gifts for your friends because they did not get to go. When someone does something kind for you, it is natural to give a small gift as a thank you.
But, are there times when you should not give a gift? The question sounds almost rude, but, years ago, we learned of one instance where not giving a gift was the right thing to do.
When we first moved to Japan there was an elderly lady who lived alone in the apartment across from us. She was hunched over and appeared to have a hard time even going out to shop. This was Hokkaido, northern Japan, and we often got snow dumped on us. I wanted to show kindness to our neighbor, so I began to shovel the entrance to her front door. She realized that I was doing this and brought a heavy bag of groceries as a gift to say thank you. In response to her kindness, a couple of days later we took her some homemade bread. Following that, she brought us a very nice and rather expensive gift.
When we shared this situation with our Japanese friend, they told us that in this case we should not give a gift in return; to do so would put an obligation on the other person.
Even now, after many years in Japan, we often shake our heads as we try to figure out—to give or not to give. Learning how to give gifts in Japan is all a part of building relationships so that we can give the very best gift ever, the gift of Jesus.
By Tim, an OMF missionary