National / Media | Japan Pulse

Gift-giving etiquette in Japan is driving some recipients crazy

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

With spring looming, perhaps it’s time to re-think the national obsession with seasonal gifts and souvenirs.

Once a virtual national pastime, the cyclical ritual of obligatory gift-giving could be consigned to history within a matter of years, according to a recent survey conducted by MyNavi.jp.

According to the survey, close to 70 percent of 1,000 respondents believe that traditional and seasonal gift-giving has become redundant.

Summer gifts (ochūgen) are regarded as most unnecessary, according to a related survey on online website woman.jp, followed by winter gifts (oseibo).

Some sites that provide advice on manners and etiquette suggest writing letters in advance to people who might send a seasonal gift that they should not bother.

The letter should state politely but firmly that the recipient should refrain from sending a gift.

Other sites such as kisetsuseikatsu.com point to the existence of a three-year rule, arguing that it’s acceptable to quit such gift-giving back-and-forths after 24 months without guilt.

In the world of business, however, old habits are hard to break, and companies have been sending gifts to clients each summer and winter for as long as one can remember. Fail to send a gift at these times of year and you run the risk of failing to renew a contract.

Seasonal gifts are far from cheap, with some users on forums such as 2chan basically describing them as bribes that should be done away with.

Buying them can quickly burn a hole in your pocket, with most costing somewhere between ¥3,000 and ¥5,000.

Major corporations trying to impress valuable clients may spend as much as five times that amount.

Excessive gift-giving can sometimes take a toll on your psychological health. In 2001, celebrity couple Masaaki Sakai and his wife, Miri Okada, ended their 12-year marriage and Okada intimated that the burden of responding to the pile of gifts that arrived each season was to blame.

Okada subsequently told reporters in interviews after they divorced that she frequently needed to go through a mountain of gifts, writing thank you notes and buying return gifts (okaeshi) as custom dictates.

Okada said that she found the process of dealing with the gifts exhausting and reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown as a result.

The incident sparked a debate on whether Okada was an ingrate who shirked her wifely duties or a courageous woman who dared to speak up about a tradition that many homemakers find troublesome.

Fast forward to the present day and the internet is rife with wives that profess to be stressed out by the ritual. It’s customary for the parents of brides to gift their in-laws once or twice each year — usually twice a year for the first three years — and the in-laws are expected to reciprocate.

Wives are often caught in the middle of this exchange, as they are typically required to write letters to both sets of parents and ensure that everything goes smoothly.

My parents want to quit gift-giving altogether, but I have no idea how to tell my mother-in-law without sounding rude,” one worried woman wrote on acmena.jp.

She was advised to ask her husband to break the news to his mother, as these things “always sound better coming from the son.”

And in case you’re wondering, such news is best not delivered with a text message, although an Instagram shot of a weeping wife may just do the trick.