Surviving a Japanese summer boils down to the art of omiyage



, smells of sea salt and suntan lotion on the beach; these images of summer dominate the mental landscape of Shonan, just as the umi-no-ie summer beach houses physically transform the shoreline from Chigasaki to Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture.

For me, however, one image reigns supreme during the months of leisure. Like many living in this land of obligation and retribution, summer really boils down to one essential half-baked reality: omiyage, a word most inadequately translated as souvenir in English.

Souvenir sits docilely on the tongue, an unobtrusive three syllables, perfectly aware of its own limitations. A souvenir can be tacky, unwanted, even descending into cheapness; on the other hand, it can wonderfully evoke memories of a favored destination. Not routinely purchased in bulk, souvenir does not imply obligation nor a lifetime commitment of repeated purchase. A souvenir can be bought carelessly, on a whim of holiday cheer.

Omiyage, in my household, takes months to plan and prepare. Our computer boasts a specialized omiyage database, a spreadsheet containing such specifics as past awards; easy packing size; cost — both actual and implied; perishability (we travel home to Florida, leaving one humid sweatbox for its only inhabitable rival on the planet not a swamp or rainforest); plus a range of other factors. All components must be carefully calculated and calibrated for a variety of individuals, covering ages from 3 to 73.

Despite these specific considerations, this stage usually passes with minimal stress or deliberation, as the intended recipients, my extended family, excitedly accept such exotic oddities as a pack of mango flavored Hi-chu or a bath salt made from jalapeno peppers. The return trip, and the accompanying search for omiyage while in Florida for Japanese friends and family, however, keeps me awake at night, despite the air-conditioning of my sister’s home in Tampa.

Americans do not have an obsessive, obligatory gift-giving culture; at least, not outside your immediate family during Christmas. Americans also do not realize the difficulty of packing 32 disparate sizes into one small suitcase. (In America, we just bring gigantean, rollered “carry-ons” that no one can actually carry without help unless you are a 180-cm physical education teacher, like my husband.)

Oh, how I envy my Canadian friends, who return each year after a refreshing dip into normal temperatures, gleefully handing me a mini-size, plastic but authentic bottle of real Canadian Maple Syrup. One particular friend pre-orders the bottles from a local store in Toronto, picks them up in one stop while on other errands during her vacation, and stores in a specially bought foldable carry-on. It’s akin to cheating, in the realm of omiyage.

Tampa, Florida, where the most common associations are now alligators and Hideki Matsui, proves an omiyage challenge every summer. My Japanese friends have been politely unimpressed with the Key Lime Chocolate Cookies, the alligator-shape beer openers, the coconut powdered tea and the palm tree Christmas ornaments.

Of course, everyone accepts my souvenirs with pleased sighs of delight, but in a land where space is limited, omiyage transmogrify too easily into iiiiyage, a Japanese pun on the word implying dread and distaste for yet another useless artifact from someone else’s vacation.

Recently, I had a chance to consider the ritual of omiyage from a different view: the left-out recipient. After years of exchanging omiyage with a close neighbor, we were suddenly left off their list. I racked my omiyage recall, troughing through the database; yes, this neighbor had duly received their University of Florida baseball cap last year. Was there some obscure rule in the omiyage exchange I was not aware of, some kind of expiration clause on obligation? Since I can find a philosophical conundrum anywhere, including the back of the cereal box, naturally my pique peaked.

Were my neighbors making a deliberate stand against mindlessly exchanging gifts? Did they just forget? Was omiyage an unfortunate casualty of the recession? No room left in the suitcase? I felt obliged not to ask directly, and this hesitation recalled a more serious dilemma.

Ten years ago, with an unaltered “American” perspective, would I have just asked them, directly, lightly? These are not mere acquaintances, and I have little fear of insulting them. It is the slight discomfort that comes when you step across an imagined boundary that bars my way from direct inquiry, and this hesitation is, to me, very Japanese.

Occasions like this remind me of how much I have changed in the 12 years I have lived in Japan, and brings up my serious dilemma, one every outsider must consider, living inside another culture: How much obligation do I have to adapt this foreign culture as my own, especially if one half of the family is a native?

It is a conundrum I face every day, with children in Japanese school, living in a small Japanese town with my outsider’s face and enduring outsider’s “common sense,” my constant puzzle to align my own culture with the cultural practices of this adopted land.

I may actually enjoy the practice of giving and receiving omiyage, but do I send New Year’s cards instead of, or in addition to, Christmas cards? Shall I keep my opinions to myself when asked, and merely smile and nod politely? How do I counsel my children, when they are called gaijin and asked to perform English for a group of strangers?

If my neighbor shares some fresh corn she received as a present, must I empty my cupboards — or run out for an exotic, reciprocal gift — to show my appreciation for her appreciation? A friend of mine coined this dilemma, ebi tai; whenever she gives a small present of thanks or appreciation, her neighbor will reciprocate with something three times in value, shrimp vs. bream, starting an unending cycle of obligation. Do I have to play along in this Japanese version of out-Jonesing the Jones? Does adapting mean adopting every convention?

Sometimes I reflect how much easier it would be if I were less flexible and accommodating. I am, unfortunately, one of those goody-goody foreigners in Japan. I bow excessively. I make umeboshi during rainy season. I ensure my refrigerator is stocked with my Japanese husband’s favorite beer, and I try not to contradict him in public.

Yet, I am invariably insulted when a Japanese friend exclaims, “Kris-san, you are more Japanese than most Japanese wives.” Meant as a compliment, yet what modern woman wants to be compared favorably to the ideal Japanese wife, with its enduring stereotype of a submissive female?

Living here for any amount of time reveals the lie behind the stereotype — most of the Japanese wives I know rule their households with a dainty, lace-covered fist, wielding her black parasol like a katana. Yet I wonder: Am I compromising some part of my own identity, in being so easily identified as a good Japanese wife? My husband politely disagrees, but I know better than to contradict him directly.

Like most philosophical musings, when looked at too closely the image recedes, and I can only struggle along, like most, teetering as I balance between two worlds. I hope some day my children ask me about the choice to live in a different culture, considering two disparate ideals of the feminine to satisfy myself and my world.

Perhaps some day I will give up on omiyage, but for now, I like the polite acknowledgement of debt, the avowal that I could not enjoy my life here without my life there, the thanks shown to the people on both sides of the Pacific. I mostly appreciate this small chance to show appreciation. Maybe this year I will find the perfect souvenir; I can only keep looking.