Language

Going back and forth with the language of giving and receiving in Japanese

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

It’s that time of year when thoughts turn to プレゼント (purezento, presents) — 何をあげるか (nani o ageru ka, what to give), いつあげるか (itsu ageru ka, when to give it), and how will it affect the relationship between giver and receiver?

In Japan, the act of 贈り物をする (okurimono o suru, gift giving) has always been loaded, even if year-end events such as (kurisumasu, Christmas) inject some fun into the proceedings.

Traditionally, the month of December has been about another kind of gift: the お歳暮 (o-seibo, year-end gift). O-seibo are often a business-world affair, usually sent from a company to its 上客 (jōkyaku, valued client). In Tokyo, the sight of salespeople hurrying along the chilly streets carrying huge bags full of o-seibo to distribute to their 得意先 (tokuisaki, clients) is becoming a rarity, but in the old merchant cities, like Osaka and Kyoto, making the o-seibo rounds is still a thing.

When presenting o-seibo, it’s customary to describe the gift as 心ばかりのもの (kokoro-bakari no mono, just a little token to express gratitude) or say, “つまらないものですが…” (“Tsumaranai mono desu ga…,” “It’s not much, but…”). The idea is to humbly remind the client of your goodwill, which should lead to renewed business ties in the upcoming year.

With Christmas, gifts are more personal. There’s very little of the 堅苦しさ (katakurushisa, formalities) of o-seibo, and many Japanese treat Christmas as an opportunity to 告る (kokuru, confess their love) or プロポーズする (puropōzu suru, propose). That means a 婚約指輪 (konyaku yubiwa, engagement ring) is high on the 欲しいものリスト (hoshii mono risuto, wish list) of many young women in relationships — though a ちょっと高めの贈り物 (chotto takame no okurimono, slightly high-end gift) isn’t a bad runner-up.

Therefore, the prospect of クリぼっち (kuribocchi, spending Christmas alone) is a 絶対避けたい (zettai saketai, must be avoided) fate for many people, and the partner-less often start campaigning for a クリスマスデートの相手 (kurisumasu dēto no aite, someone to go out with for a date on Christmas) right after Halloween, as well as think up various purezento to make things merrier.

They say it’s better to 与える (ataeru, bestow/give) than 貰う (morau, receive), and it’s better to use “ataeru” instead of “ageru” when you’re giving to someone in a lower position. God-fearing Japanese might recall the word “ataeru” from Acts 20:35 in the Bible, taken from the passage “与える者は幸いなり” (“Ataeru mono wa saiwai nari,” “It is more blessed to give than receive”). It also has a different connotation from words other than ageru with the same meaning, like the more polite 差し上げる (sashiageru, give), and the functional 提供する (teikyō suru, supply).

Which brings us to the all-important issue of what to give. 私はキラキラした物をもらいたい (Watashi wa kirakira shita mono o moraitai, I’d like to receive something that glitters), but not if it comes with an excessively high price tag. Few women in Japan would feel comfortable about receiving anything too pricey on Christmas from someone other than a long-term partner. On most occasions, 大したものじゃなくていい (Taishita mono janakute ii, I don’t need anything special).

Some people come right out and say 高価なものは受け取れません (Kōkana mono wa uketoremasen, I can’t accept anything very expensive). In this kind of refusal, the verb 受け取る (uketoru, accepting and taking) has the same meaning as the more casual morau but has a more formal connotation that is intended to insert a certain distance between the giver and receiver. Uketoru or its negative form 受け取らない (uketoranai) is brisk and business-like, used in unsentimental ways like 宅配便を受け取りました (takuhaibin o uketorimashita, I received the delivery package). When a person uses “uketoru” in regards to purezento, it may mean that they are not ready to make a full-on commitment.

When the gift comes from 職場の上司 (shokuba no jōshi, a boss at work) or a 目上の人 (meue no hito, an older person/a person who commands your respect), the language changes. If you are on the receiving end from someone in a position of authority, the correct verb to use is いただく (itadaku) — as in ありがたくいただきます, a really polite way to say thanks — or 頂戴致します (chōdai-itashimasu), a phrase that’s handy in ultra proper gift-receiving situations.

An acceptable way to give thanks in this hyper-polite situation may go like this: 結 構なものを頂戴致しましてありがとうございます (Kekkōna mono o chōdai-itashimashite arigatō gozaimasu, I really appreciate this fine gift, thank you very much). But if that’s too much of a mouthful, a heartfelt 本当にありがとうございます (hontō ni arigatō gozaimasu, honestly thank you very much) should suffice. After all, 気持ちが大事 (kimochi ga daiji, the feeling is important). In other words, it’s the thought that counts.

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