Exchange, Reciprocity, and Gift-Giving

The giving of gifts is intrinsic and an important part of Japanese culture. Relationships (mutual dependence) are considered indispensable to ensure continual survival to the Japanese people. Thus gift-giving is practiced to demonstrate appreciation and promote relationships and goodwill.

In Japan, a substantial amount of money and effort is spent in gift giving, not only at personal and household levels, but on national and macroeconomic levels as well. For example, the sale of summer and winter gifts provide 60% of the annual profits of most Tokyo department stores. Sometimes, the objective of exchanging gifts maybe to secure opportunities and to foster affections, rather than to commemorate a special occasion. The practice of gift exchange largely follows the structure of hierarchy and society.

This paper will discuss the history of gift giving, how it is important to the Japanese, the rules involved in this practice, some factors that might affect the value of gifts, the various gifts exchanged on different occasions, problems faced with gift-giving and finally, we will touch on the recent trends of gift giving.

The Roots of Gift Giving

To trace the history of gift giving in Japan, it is more fruitful to look at folklore and folk customs to gain a definite insight into this ancient tradition of Japan. According to the Yanagita School of Folklore, gift giving in Japan started out as a ritual offering to gods and supernatural beings. Food, especially rice, is often the choice of offering. For example, rice is offered to family ancestors every morning at household alters and glutinous rice cake is offered to village Shinto shrines occasionally. On special occasions such as New Year’s Day, it is a must to offer rice cake to the New Year’s God. This shows us how food is such a traditional and popular gift among Japanese.

Similarly, importance is also placed on the ritual offering of sake where the first raw sake (Doburoku) is prepared in a tub and offered to the tutelary god of the village before offering to the rest of the people. This practice is due to the belief of offering the first fruit of labour to the gods and sharing it among the community later. This practice is called Naorai, the custom where gods and mortals share food. According to folklorists, these offerings to gods were treated as gifts to them, and were later returned to the mortals as gifts from the gods to share their power. It is believed the gulf between mortals and gods are not great, men are just less powerful gods and thus are susceptible to magical contagion. Therefore, commensality came to be seen as the device to transfer supernatural power from god to men and between members of a community.

Today, Naorai is known as the feast held after a religious ritual proper. It also accounts for the banquet held for a person of an unlucky or “calamitous” year (Yakudoshi). Due to the belief in magical contagion, the combined power of all guests is able to dispel all misfortune of the person. In addition, these feasts and banquets serve to strengthen the social cohesion of groups. Gift giving then serves an important function, to build up solidarity among Japanese.

This belief in magical contagion extends to the belief that since magic can be shared through a communion meal, such power can also be transferred through gifts of food; Such that when someone in a family is sick, by receiving food from another family whose members are all in good health, it is believed that the sick is able to absorb the magic from the gift and get well. Likewise, gifts are given to newly born children in hope that they would “borrow” power from others to build up strength to ensure they will be blessed with health and growth. Similarly, as good luck and power can be transferred from one to another through gifts, bad luck can also be transferred through the same means. Hence, gifts from a person of “calamitous” year and return gifts from a sick person may not be accepted for fear of transferring the bad luck or diseases to the receiver.

From a secular point of view, the religious and magical meaning behind gift giving may not be as important and gift giving is often practiced due to other reasons; The secular meaning of gift giving in Japan is to highlight the importance of the household as a basic social unit and the interdependency between households. A gift for a particular member of a household may actually be intended for the whole household as a corporate unit, given by the whole household of the donor. In this sense, both donor and receiver are only seen as part of a larger group; individuality is played down while importance of belonging to a group is stressed.

As the saying goes, “No man is an island”; and for the Japanese, no single group is an island. Interdependence is perceived as the most important requirement of survival in Japanese culture and hence, building up solidarity and good relation with each other and between groups is an essential part of the Japanese character. Gift giving in this sense is a tool to maintain good relationships between people and groups, to ensure acceptance and integration into the society and network. In order to cement this concepts, understanding of the Japanese tradition of Giri, On and reciprocity is required.

To understand the concept of on, which means an obligation, a load, an indebtedness, a burden which one carries; it is important to grasp the meaning of the saying “One never repays one ten-thousandth of on”. Indeed, on never decreases with time but instead accumulates over the years even with repayments. This is because one is said to be indebted to one’s past; to the ancestors who had gone before them and simply the fact of being born, and every day-by-day contact with other people increases their debt. Hence, an individual owes on to the imperial emperor, to parents, teachers, masters and supervisors, even associates, accumulating obligation towards these people throughout their life course.

On binds people to their debtors in a way, because on due to another overrides their personal preferences and is taken very seriously. Wearing on towards the Emperor resulted in soldiers fighting in war for Japan and even becoming Kamikaze pilots (suicide bombing pilots) to repay on towards the Emperor. Filial piety and obeying parental authority is also largely due to the on children owe their parents. Hence, gift giving is only a small way to repay one’s on; to show gratitude. In fact, giving gifts seems more like a token from the giver to express that they did not forget the favors received in the past.

Giri is the motivation of gift giving out of repaying on and is a moral imperative to perform one’s duties towards other members of one’s group, such that one is morally obligated to give a gift when custom demands it. Some Japanese even interpret giri to mean strict observance of the etiquette of gift giving. It is important to consider the value of the gift such that the value of the gift must be equivalent to the social status of the giver and the recipient where hierarchy of social status plays an integral part. Gift giving is always given to a superior from an inferior (such as a branch family giving gifts to its main family) and value must reflect on the position of the recipient. Also, the occasion which the gift is intended must be carefully thought of, this point would be elaborated further later on in the paper. In fact, one’s social character would be judged upon if one does not follow this giri-based gift giving etiquette meticulously and would be seen as untrustworthy or irresponsible. But most of all, giri is tie up to the custom of reciprocity where a return gift is an obligation for every gift received.

Reciprocity of gift giving evokes from the structure of the society where relationship with one another is defined in reciprocal terms whereby there is a need to balance all social relationships. In another words, a favor done for someone requires the recipient to do something in return, if not there would be an imbalance and relationship between the two parties would break down. This applies to gift giving too and hence, the cycle of gift giving never cease as one gift begets another. However, reciprocity may not be in kind such that a gift is returned for a favor done or vice versa, but the value of the gift must be observed. A social superior need not reciprocate with a gift of the same value, as doing that would reduce the status of the superior to that of the giver.

As one can clearly see, there are many unspoken rules of gift giving and to be able to follow everything meticulously is almost impossible. Hence it is without surprise that new generation of Japanese now, especially the urban-dwelling and educated young ones find gift giving constraining and a nuisance. The living arrangement of these urbanites may account for these sentiments that they hold about traditional gift giving. As city life may not depend as much on the solidarity between people that the tradition holds, stressing on individuality instead, gift giving, which is the symbol of this solidarity may no longer required. Instead, they prefer giving gifts on individual basis where it does not encumber the members of one’s family. Therefore, individual gift giving may not be practiced between relatives and neighbours where people interact as a unit. Individual gift giving is motivated by Ninjo; meaning giving gifts out of personal affection for the recipient, instead of out of obligation (giri).

Individual gift giving usually occurs in school or work where people interact as individuals and hence gifts are tailored to suit the recipient’s taste and liking rather than placing importance on the value. As individual gift giving does not require reciprocity, this also meant the breaking down of the concept of balanced reciprocity which traditional giri gift giving is all about. Furthermore, as individual gift giving is based on mutual trust and liking; the concern about social hierarchy, status and judgment of one’s character through the gift one gives is no longer of as much importance. This breaking of traditional gift giving reflects the changing society of Japan where focus on individualism is on the rise.

Factors that Affect the Value of Gifts

Though, as explained above, the practice of gift giving may sometimes be changing in recent times, it is necessary to explain the general factors that people use in deciding the value of gifts to give, in order to understand the many different issues involved in giving and receiving. We will further elaborate on the concepts of: strength of relationship, gratitude and hierarchy.

Strength of Relationship

Expressions like chikai (close) or toi (far), fukai (deep) or asai (shallow) and koi (strong and thick) or usui (weak and thin) are often mentioned when describing relationship with another party. The receiver usually assumes the monetary value of a gift has at least partly been calculated in accordance with the giver’s perception of the strength of relationship that exists between the giver and receiver. Thus from a gift, we can tell the relationship between two people.

Criteria for Judging Strength of Relationship

One of these criteria is the level of friendship that exists between two people. For instance, “true friends”, people whom the receiver associates from the heart will give more than “superficial friends”.

There are some cases in which people give generous gifts in order to create a stronger relationship, but such giving can be precarious. For instance, A has received a gift from B, a person whom A has been trying to distance from. A may interpret the gift from B as an attempt to force A back into social relations with B.
Gifts at the lower end of the spectrum were tied to the lack of relationship between the giver and receiver. Gifts of little value may have also suggested stinginess or social ignorance. It is also possible that gifts of little value are given so as to make a profit from the return gift.

A second criterion for judging strength of relationship is the number of intervening links of people between the giver and the recipient. Gifts from people with more direct relationships to the recipient are higher than the gifts from the people with less direct relationships to the receiver.

A third criterion for judging strength of relationship is the place of residence. This criterion is used to explain the difference in the value of gifts given by neighbours. As a rule, next door neighbours must give more than neighbours who live down the streets, and people who live in apartments above, below, and to either side must give more than people who live in other parts of an apartment building, regardless of personal feelings.

RELATED POST:  Naked festivals of Japan


The value of gifts may be motivated by the factor of gratitude. Gratitude for past deeds of the recipient or the recipient’s family will entail a gift of higher monetary value. Favors will include helping to look after the family, helping in a funeral, parents being go-betweens and others.


Hierarchy is also another factor that influences giving. In general, it is an obligation and a right that people who are of higher status give more and are given more than people of lower status.

Gender difference also plays a part in influencing the value of gifts. Women are expected to give less or could “get away” with giving less than men. Often relationships between men result in higher exchanges of money or monetary gifts than relationships through women. This is because males’ connections are generally of greater importance than women connections. A man’s relationship with his bosses, colleagues and customers can influence the financial stability and well-being of his family, whereas a woman’s friendships are merely sources of support and pleasure for her as an individual.

To summarize, three critical factors that people use in determining the monetary value of gifts are strength of relationship, gratitude and hierarchy. Understanding how these variables often express themselves in relationships of giving is crucial for the interpretation of the meanings of the gifts.

Generally, the closer the relationship(in terms of kinship, distance, friendship, and place of residence), the higher the cash value of the gifts. Gratitude for past deeds of the recipient or the recipient’s family also increases the amount of gift. Hierarchy influences giving in the sense that people of higher status are obliged to give more than people of lower status, and people of higher status are given more them people of lower status. Also, women generally give and are given less than men. Precise calculations of monetary value indicate the giver’s perception of the relationship with the recipient and can signal or affect changes in the social position of the giver, the receiver and the relationship they share.


Gift-wrapping can be a relatively complex issue for the Japanese, because the appearance of a gift and its content can be related to ones social status and relationship to the recipient, as discussed above. There is a list of customs and traditions to follow for every event.

The Japanese have a reputation of having very nicely packaged gifts and products. If you visit the basement of Takashimaya shopping center, you will find many Japanese cookies, chocolates and candies beautifully packed or boxed. Indeed, for the Japanese, the appearance of the gift can be as important as the content. There are various reasons why a gift should be wrapped. Some gifts may also have several layers of wrapping.

Why the emphasis on wrapping? After all, it takes time to select the appropriate wrapper, choose a matching ribbon, fold and encase the object into an attractive shape. Sometimes the wrapper is almost instantly ripped off and discarded. In many cultures, the purpose of gift-wrapping is to introduce a festive air and is deemed the proper way to present a gift. Interestingly, wrapping also provides an opportunity for individuals to express their taste in choice of paper, and their economic success in its quality.

The special effort put into the decoration of the gift is probably expected to transmit a message of goodwill to the recipient.

For the Japanese, what is more important is the idea of wrapping (tsutsumu) or tying / binding (musubu) things. It has special meaning in the context of Japanese ritual and belief, signifying not only enveloping something with a covering but demarcating it as special and sacred. The significance of tsutsumu can be explained as an act that marks offerings as pure and clean and separates them from dirt or defilement. It is said, moreover, that tsutsumu derives from the word tsutsushimu, which means to be discreet and restrained, and to show respect.

Tsusumu, or wrapping things, is done not only to keep them clean and protect them from harm, but also to express the giver’s heartfelt respect for the person they are presented to; tsutsumu signifies the spirit of giving not only some material thing but feeling from the heart.

The immediate opening of a gift is said to display too much interest in the material content of the offering, rather then the sentiment it expresses. In Japan the polite way to open a present, especially in the presence of the giver, is to undo it carefully, without tearing the paper. Some neatly fold the paper, saving it for reuse. After ascertaining value, appropriate reciprocity is done when a suitable occasion arises.

The content of the packages is often enough a domestic product such as food or drink, encased in usual way, cans, bottles, jars, etc. The product would then be further packaged, and the number of layers of wrapping is in some way indicative of the formality of the occasion. Sometimes, items may actually be encased up to 6 times. The gifts may be arranged, for example, carefully on a bed of satin or presentation box, basket, and then sealed into place with cellophane. And upon purchase, the package will be further wrapped, have an appropriate decorative layer fixed around it, and the whole parcel will then be placed in a carrier bag with the name of the store printed outside. Custom requires that the gift be handed over in this form, and note that the reputation of the store where the gift is bought has a direct implication how much the donor values the relationship with the receiver. Gifts from a particular department stores or localities express respect to the recipient and link him or her to a larger hierarchical order, in other words, “elevating” his or her status. When the gift is bought from a famous store, everyone knows the price.

Similarly, a gift wrapped properly in a paper of a famous department store is an indication that a giver is treating the relationship with the receiver carefully and with respect. Thus, in order to protect their reputations, some department stores insist on doing the wrapping in the store; they will not give out paper and let their customers wrap gifts themselves. It is also noted that the wrapping paper would be stamped with both the name of the department store and its location. The location of the department store is important because the same gift purchased at different branches covey different message. For instance, “a gift bought at the Nihonbashi branch of Mitsukoshi Department Store means that much care has been taken care with one’s relationship to the other person; the same gift purchased at the Ikebukuro branch of Mitsukoshi connotes less consideration.” (Rupp, Katherine, 2003, pg 69-70)

A furoshiki is a square of cloth used for wrapping up things, either for storage or carrying. Furoshiki come in various sizes, from about 70 centimeters square to larger ones 220 centimeters square (approx. 30 to 90 inches square). A furoshiki can be used by simply tying the ends together, and wrap up things of almost any size and shape. Unlike a briefcase or bag, which has a predetermined form, it is extremely handy and can be folded up after use to wrap or carry something else. Since the end of World War II, most people have opted to use modern-style bags, brief cases and satchels, so furoshiki are not seen as commonly as they once were, except at tradition-centered events such as weddings and funerals. Furoshiki today are made of silk, cotton and synthetic fibers, and are printed with traditional as well as more modern designs, and can be used for gift wrapping.

Significance of Choices

This section describes the various practices and rules of giving and receiving and their symbolisms. Practices of giving differ accordingly with events; happy events related to life and sad occasions connected to death. It is important to understand and follow these practices and rules. Mistakes in gift giving not only indicate a lack of consideration and respect on the giver’s part, but also may negatively influence a crucial point of transition.


At weddings, notes should be new, shiny and lying facing upwards where human faces on the notes are clearly visible to the young couple; at funerals, they should be old, crumpled and lying facing downwards. This is because, new notes indicate the joyful anticipation and the careful preparation on the part of the giver; old notes connote surprise, dismay, and hasty gathering of money.

Odd or Even

Giving related to life cycle events emphasizes on odd numbers. The monetary value of gifts is of odd value. The cords used to tie the gifts are made from odd numbers of strands; a nine-stranded cord is the one with the highest numbers of strands, and it is very appropriate for auspicious events like weddings. There are three ways to explain the significance of odd numbers:

To many Chinese, even numbers are considered lucky and auspicious. However, Japanese people on the other hand, see even numbers as unlucky, because they can be divided and thus indicates things cannot last long. A second explanation is due to the work of hierarchical principal. Every odd number is greater than an even number by one, thus it would be seen that odd numbers are superior to even numbers.

The concept of yin and yang is third way to explain the significance of odd numbers. Even numbers are yin and odd numbers are yang. In the philosophy of yin and yang, neither yin nor yang on its own has the power to create anything, but in combination with each other, they give birth to everything in existence. Yin is contained yang, and yang within yin, thus the relationship between in yin and yang is not hierarchical.

However, in some forms of practices, yang is superior to yin. For instance, in contrast to ancient Taoist philosophy’s emphasis on the equal importance of chaos and changelessness, modern Taoist practitioners compel disorder (yin) to submit to order (yang) so that nature will flourish and social relations will be proper and harmonious. Hence in this case, we can see the hierarchical relationship between yin and yang.

It is not surprising that the number of strands used to tie gifts, the numbers of objects given and the amounts of cash placed inside the envelopes are determined by a hierarchical principle, because as mentioned before, practices of giving often reinforce relations of hierarchy.

Although in Japan odd numbers are generally considered better for giving than even numbers, there are also other rules related to numbers that are sometimes at odds with this principle: Nine (ku) sounds like the word for pain (ku tsu), thus is considered bad luck particularly for gifts to sick people. However, in other instances, it is considered auspicious. A cord composed of nine strands is the most auspicious cord with which to tie a gift. The most elaborate set of lucky items that accompanies the presentation of the formal engagement gift (yuino) has nine parts. Eight, although it is an even number, is considered auspicious. Most people say the reason why eight is lucky is that the Chinese character/ Japanese kanji for eight (八) widens at the bottom, indicating good things will multiply.

Left over Right or Right over Left

Living people wear kimono with the left side over the right. At funerals, the corpse is dressed in a kimono where the right side is laid over the left. Similarly, at funerals, right is folded over left when wrapping an envelope in a cloth, and at weddings, the reverse is true.

This is due to the concept of yin and yang, which has been mentioned before. Left indicates yang and right indicates yin. On auspicious events, which are the celebrations of life, and crucial to the reproduction of human beings and of society, the idea of yang is stressed, so wrapping is done with left over right, top over bottom. Whereas on occasions where there is pollution, for instance during the period of death, yin is the strongest so wrapping is done with right over left, bottom over top.


The gift of money is common among the Japanese. Envelopes (Noshibukuros) containing money for betrothals, weddings, births, and other celebrations are different from the envelopes for funeral and memorial services. Noshibukuros for auspicious occasions are marked with a small decoration in the upper right hand corner that symbolizes abalone. Originally, a slice of dried and flattened abalone was attached to gifts for auspicious occasions, to indicate that the event was unconnected to death (during which abstinence from meat was required). Today, this symbol is often simply printed on the envelopes, though some more elaborate envelopes still do use origami decoration, and genuine dried abalone.

The Japanese are very sensitive people; you may note that the writing for noshibukuros for sad occasions is not in black but in gray. This is to express sorrow, or according to a native Japanese we spoke to, is to express empathy, and the words are in gray because one cried so much that the ink has become diluted.

Often, the Noshibukuros are further wrapped with a sheet of plain white paper before presentation. On it the name of the donor and his of her address is written. This provides a return address to which the receiver can practice reciprocity. There is also a space on the back of the envelope to write the amount enclosed within. It would be inappropriate to use overly elaborate envelopes that don’t justify a small denomination of banknotes inside.

RELATED POST:  Horror and Supernatural in Horror Media in Japan and the West


Mizuhikis are cords used to tie the Noshibukuros. The colours used for funerals and memorial services are white, black or silver. The colours used for celebrations and auspicious occasions are red, white, gold and silver. Although sometimes a single colour, usually either red or gold is used, combinations of two colours, such as red and white, black and white, and so on, are the usual practice as it may be related to the symbolic function of these gifts: reinforcing ties between different individuals or groups of individuals.

Kinds of Knots

In addition to the two categories of celebrations and bereavement, there is also differentiation between events that happen only once in the lifetime of an individual and events that is repeated. The cords for wedding and funeral gifts are tied with the musubikiri (“to tie completely”) knot, to symbolize a lasting, fruitful and happy marriage and to indicate death will not occur again respectively. Gifts to people recovering from illness should technically be tied with a red and white cord using this same kind of knot, in order to indicate the sickness will not come back. Other occasions like birth of a child, birthdays, graduation and so forth, are tied with a chomusubi (“butterfly knot”), to indicate that these events may occur more than once.


Red is an extremely important colour for auspicious occasions related to life and reproduction. Red is the colour of life, of blood and fire. Thus, red bean sweets, red bean with white rice, pink shavings of dried fish are common return gifts at weddings.

White by itself is a colour that indicates the cutting of relationships. Flowers at funerals are white, white envelopes with white cords are used at memorial services. Corpses are dressed in white clothes to symbolize the cutting of relationship with the living. Babies are dressed in white clothes to symbolize the cutting of ties of an infant to the other world and anchor it firmly to the realms of human beings. Brides also wear white wedding gowns to indicate the cutting of relationship with her natal family.

Types of Return Gifts

The return gifts given on sad occasions are things that do not last long, like tea, seaweed and cloth. This is because the receiver does not want to keep these gifts for a long period of time since after all it is an inauspicious event. Another reason why tea and seaweed are given is due to their colour. The colour green is often associated with death and mourning. On the other hand, the return gifts for happy occasions are items that will last long like ceramic or wooden items. Food like red bean with glutinous white rice is also given. Sometimes, only one member of the family attends the occasion ceremony itself, thus bringing food back signifies the distribution of happiness to other members of the family who did not attend the ceremony.

It is seen that the practice of giving follows rules related to the idea of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. When rules are followed, the gifts not only convey the sentiments of the giver, but also to ensure that the rite of passage will progress normally. Mistakes made will cause disturbance to the receiver and convey the message that the giver does not value the relationship with the recipient.

Types and significance of gifts in various occasions


In the fifth month of a women’s pregnancy, her mother will give her a fukutai which is a long bang of cloth to be bind around her abdomen. Covering the stomach is considered important for keeping the baby warm and protected. The giving of the band is called obiiwai. It is to officially recognize the women’s pregnancy and wearing of the band is to ensure a healthy child and safe birth. Sometime a protective charm obtained from a shrine or temple will be placed inside the band.

Most doctors expect to receive a gift of money when they deliver a child. This money is in addition to payment of fees for their services. The amount of money of the gift depends on the kind of delivery and the extent of the medical procedures performed. The money also depends on the rank of the hospital and of the doctor. If the hospital does not allow doctors to receive gifts, the gifts will be sent to the doctors home. Nurses do not usually receive money, but rather a box of sweets that they share among themselves.

Many families still observe a naming ceremony, called shichiya, held on the seventh night after the child’s birth. Close relatives and friends will bring various gifts for the baby, such as clothing and toys, money (which depends on the relationship and other circumstances can range from 5,000 to 10,000 yen), sake, and sometimes food such as custard for the mother. Return gifts given to the guest will usually include auspicious item such as bonito flakes or pink and white rice cakes. Friends, neighbors and relatives who do not attend the seventh night ceremony also give baby gifts, known as shussaniwai. They will also bring gifts to the mother and to the grandparents. Gifts specifically for the newborn are reciprocated about a month after the birth. It is know as uchiiwai. Uchiiwai are technically not return gifts, but it is given because a celebratory event has occurred within the family. The costs of the gifts are often half of the cost of the original gift. Gifts are usually daily commodities, enclosed with a photo of the baby.


Numerous exchanges are made in connection with marriage. In some areas, gifts are exchanged when a decision is reached for two people to marry. The presentation of betrothal gifts both marks and reinforces the promise to marry. Yui-no is an engagement ceremony where bride and groom and their family will exchange gifts. The bride to be will be given an obi to represent female virtue and the groom to be will be given a hakama skirt to represent fidelity. Other than the obi and hakama, nine other items are also being exchanged. These nine items include a dried abalone wrapped in white paper. Abalone lives for many years in the ocean, grows to a large size, and is thus symbolic of a long life. The second item is a pair of white fan that unfold in the same way the couple’s happiness and good fortune will unfold. The third is a pair of two dolls depicting an old couple or it can be a kind of seaweeds that looks like long, white hair, indicating that the couple will grow together. The fourth is dried squid, because the more you chew it, the more flavor comes out, implying that the couple will appreciate the good qualities of the other as they get closer. The fifth is the kind of dried seaweeds known as konbu, to wish the couple many happy and healthy children. The sixth is dried bonito, which is an auspicious food reddish in colour, to wish the couple a lasting marriage. The seventh item is a cask made from willow for holding sake; yanagidaru, the name for this container is written with characters meaning, “lots happiness within the house”. The eight item is an inventory of the various gifts written with pen and brush on high quality paper. The ninth item is an envelope containing cash. These auspicious items are places in the bride’s home until after the marriage.

The cash amount of the groom’s betrothal gifts is technically suppose to be equivalent to three months of the groom’s salary. The way the groom’s family presents betrothal gifts to the bride’s family varies greatly according to region, class and individual family. The male go-between presides over the presentation of engagement gifts. Roughly one-third of the time, a return gift will be made from the bride and her family to the groom. This gift is usually something to wear like suit or watch. Usually, the amount of the return gift is half of the original cash gift.

Before the marriage of a couple, relatives and close friends will come on auspicious days, either the bride’s or groom’s house to offer their congratulation and elaborately decorated envelops of cash call the go-shi-gi. The average amount of go-shi-gi is around 10,000 to 100,000 yen. Appropriate amount of go-shi-gi may vary according to the area, age, social status, and the relationship between the giver and the couple.

The core of the wedding is a ritual exchange of sake between the bride and the groom, and between the family of the bride and the family of the groom. Drinking of sake is one way of forging ties with another person. In daily life, this connection is made because one-person pours for another, and the receiver lightly place fingertips on the cup as the sake flows in; there is in this way a link between giver and recipient. Often, there is a hierarchical component to this connection; the junior person serves the senior person, or the host first serves the guest, and then later, this action is reciprocated. In Shinto marriage ceremony, there is a hierarchical order in which the participants drink. First the groom drinks, and then the bride. When it’s time for the parents to drink, the groom’s parents drink before the bride’s parents, and the fathers drink before the mothers.

The gifts to wedding guests as they depart from the reception are usually selected from thick brochures or catalogues prior to the wedding. The kind of gifts very, but they tend to include one item that will serve as a reminder of this happy event. Sometimes, for guest who had come from far away, envelops of money, hikidemono, to cover the cost of transportation to the wedding will be given. For people who did not attend the ceremony, the return gift is sent within 30 days after ceremony. The average amount is half of the go-shi-gi. Some gifts are sent through the mail or are brought in person to the recipient’s house. Much of the honeymoon is spent purchasing further gifts for friends, relatives, and others.

The return gift to the go-between is different from other guests. Their gifts are usually sent for at least 3 years after the wedding, at both the summer and winter gift giving seasons. It is to shown gratitude to a busy man of high social standing who had kindly help in the couple’s wedding. Sometimes, it is also to show gratitude for his past action of hiring the groom, for his present action as a participant in the groom’s marriage, or a request to support and take care of the groom in the future.


Reciprocity and exchanges are important not only on auspicious occasions but also on inauspicious occasions such as death. In the event of a person’s death in Japan, the mourners will attend the O-tsu-ya (wake) or the O-so-shiki (funeral service). At the O-tsu-ya, mourners will give ko-den (incense money) to express their condolences. The amount of ko-den received from the different mourners is recorded down in the ko-den register. Recording down the amount of ko-den received is important due to the need to reciprocity. Hence the ko-den register is one of the most important documents to a Japanese household as it is a record of the network of reciprocal obligations and social ties that cultivate over the years.

Like any other gift-giving occasion in Japan where the value of gifts given depends on a lot of factors, the amount of ko-den given also varies. It varies according to the deceased’s age, sex and status within the household, the status of the household itself, the relationship of the mourner (or the mourner’s household) to the deceased (or the deceased’s household) and the relative status between the mourner and the deceased (or between their two households).

Things returned to the mourners

While the bereaved family received ko-den from the mourners, they also reciprocate during and after the funeral. During the funeral, the bereaved family will usually give a sachet of salt to every mourners for purification after their exposure to death because death is considered an inauspicious occasion. In addition, a printed note of appreciation is also given to express thanks for the mourners’ condolences. The bereaved family will reciprocate by giving kodengaeshi (return of ko-den) to the mourners some months after the funeral. The value of the kodengaeshi is generally equal half the value of the mourner’s ko-den.

Significance of the ko-den and kodengaeshi

Ko-den and kodengaeshi are not simply a form of insurance to meet unpredictable one time massive expenses. The exchanges of the ko-den and kodengaeshi are a concrete expression of the networks of obligations and interdependence that link households with one another. Furthermore, it also provide continuing reassurance to the individual that there is a large group of people outside the immediate family who are under some obligation to him or her, and who can be counted on in a time of need. Hence the presentation of ko-den is never a one-time transaction and is often part of a long-enduring web of obligations and counter obligations that may persist over generations.

On most gift-giving occasions in Japan, the custom of gift-giving usually follows the hierarchy relations (inferiors to superiors). However, the presentation of ko-den falls out of it. Instead, the principle of noblesse oblige apply, such that people expect that in exchanges between individuals or households of unequal status, the superior will give more to the inferior and never vice versa.

RELATED POST:  What is the link between vampires and religion?

New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is one of the most important festivals celebrated in Japan. It is celebrated for the first 3 days or the first week of January. During this day, families in Japan exchange greeting with each other. Branch families return homes on New Year’s Day and sometimes present gifts to the main families.

Sending New Year’s cards to relatives, classmates and co-workers is a very important custom in Japan. Nengajo (postcards) are also sent as greeting for the New Year. Nengajo are used to express gratitude or maintain friendships on this special occasion.

On New Year’s Day, children receive toshidama (gifts of money). Toshidama are New Year’s gifts given to children by their parents. It signifies the passing on of the power of the New Year deity.

Christmas Day

Unlike New Year’s Day, Christmas is not as widely celebrated by the Japanese. Christmas presents are usually exchanged between people with romantic commitments as well as close friends. Christmas presents tend to be things that are cute and sometimes slightly expansive because of the relationship between the donor and the person whom they are given to. Unlike the oseibo gifts where inferiors normally give gifts to superiors, Christmas gifts are outside the relations of hierarchy. It allows people to give more freely from the heart.

Ochugen and Oseibo

The main occasions of gift giving in Japan are known as “seasonal greetings”, the chief of which are Ochugen and Oseibo. Ochugen gifts are given in the hot months of summer, mainly June; while Oseibo are given as winter year-end presents. Both kinds are sent in order to express gratitude for kindness, help or consideration the giver has benefited over the preceding months. It is customary to give such gifts mainly to persons of higher standing such as supervisors or teachers. An interesting point to take note is that companies in Japan actually give bonuses both in June and December to help employees to offset their expenses. While seasonal gift giving is becoming less common among the younger generations who find it old-fashioned, it is still vigorously continued throughout Japan.

Valentine’s Day

The western-adopted holiday of Valentine’s Day is a significant social event in contemporary Japan. Unlike the American holiday, when men and women exchange gifts, Valentine’s Day in Japan is a time where women give chocolates to men. Chocolates have an important cultural symbolism that will be touched on later. Women give chocolates to men due to two reasons: firstly, to express affection to their lovers and spouses; secondly, out of giri (obligation). As mentioned earlier, the repayment of obligation is very important in Japan, thus around 84% of the women give gifts to men who had helped them before. Valentine’s Day is also a day of judgment. In Japanese companies, it was customary for office ladies to give chocolates to all the men in their respective departments. The number of chocolates a man received will indicate his popularity among the women. The difference between a popular and not-so-popular man was shamelessly exposed in the open office environment, as the former was showered with chocolates that could fill a huge cardboard box whereas the latter received only a scanty number of “ultra-obligatory” chocolates. Thus, chocolate measure a man’s popularity among women.

Significance of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is the occasion of the year in which women are allowed the greatest freedom of personal expression. In Japan, women are generally raised to be relatively restrained, especially so when it comes to publicly exposing romantic interest. Lebra claims that, “Aversion to exposure and the desire for formally flawless display underlying the Japanese sensitivity to shame, act together to inhibit self-expression”. However, Japanese culture typically provides institutionalized forms of release from their strictures. The Japanese set aside certain occasions for free personal inhibited self-disclosure. Valentine’s Day functions as one such outlet. Women on this day are freed from social expectations and declaration of love may be brash.

Symbolic context of chocolates

The preeminence of chocolates as the gift of Valentine’s Day in Japan was not purely due to marketing strategy of the chocolate strategy of the chocolate industry, but also somehow in symbolic agreement with the Japanese expectation of a gift for a woman to give to men. According to Japanese symbolic constructs, sweetness and sweets themselves represent dependency relationships. The Japanese psychiatrist Doi has characterized Japanese as having an amae personality structure. The word amae means dependency. According to Doi’s psychology of dependency, the Japanese conceptualized these dependency relationships as ‘sweet’. The Japanese word for sweet is amai, the word amai and amae are derived from the same root. The Japanese associate sweets with women, hence the symbolic associations of amae surrounding chocolates as a sweet may hint the idea of women’s general dependence status on men. It is important to take note that although women depend on their husbands for social status and financial support, they have won some degree of power leverage by encouraging their husbands to be dependent on them for their daily domestic and emotional needs.

Lastly, Valentine’s Day also undermines hierarchical relationships. This is because, during this day, it is the women who have the upper hand. Salary men become symbolically dependent upon women on Valentine’s Day because the number of chocolates he received from the women will determine his popularity. It matter to a man whether he receive chocolates. A man was quoted saying “I knew that it was only an obligatory, but I still feel good receiving it.” Beside that, some office ladies will devise tactics of revenge such as giving fewer boxes, delaying the time to give, or presenting broken chocolate to a man they disliked. Office ladies enjoy the power of playing such pranks on men on Valentine’s Day. Thus, men’s self esteem may be affected as they are forced to receive the gifts at its face value since the message was disguised.

White Day

White Day takes place on March fourteenth and is primarily an occasion for men to reciprocate by giving gifts to women who gave them Valentine chocolate. Although there is an emphasis on chocolates as the gift for Valentine’s Day, there is no predetermined gift for White Day. Some gifts that men give include white chocolates, dresses or purses. The gifts are at least twice as expensive as women’s gifts. This is because it is a matter of men honor. Some men were noted saying that even if the gift from a woman cost only two hundred yen, they felt that it was only appropriate to spend about one thousand to two thousand yen per gift. This reflects male self-perceived higher superiority.

Significance of White’s Day

Due to Japanese concept of giri, men have to reciprocate gifts to women on White Day. Although, some salary men are reluctant to give White Day gifts, they are still obliged because they know that they risk their reputation among the office ladies if they fail to do so. Those who do not reciprocate can rarely escape office ladies’ criticisms. In addition, it is important for men to reciprocate gifts to women since they will need their help at work.
Men play a passive role in this case; giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day is an active behavior, implying that women have selected certain men among many to convey their feelings to. In contrast, the men’s roles are essentially passive, because the women who receive White Day gifts are predetermined. Another point to take note that the gifts for White Day are usually purchased by the men’s wives. In addition, many women take active parts in White Day’s gift practices in other ways such as reminding their husbands the date and providing their husbands with information concerning the latest gift giving practices.

Problems Arising From Gift Giving

Because of the many gift giving occasions, many exchanged gifts may go unopened or unwanted. These non-perishable gifts are either being stored in the closet and forgotten about or they are passed on to someone else as gift. These unopened or unwanted gifts thus have created a new business for pawn brokers. These pawn brokers will buy the unwanted gifts and then resell them. This profession will be mentioned in the next section on recent trends.

In order to make the gift presentable and to convey a message of respect and appreciation to the receiver, considerable amount of time, effort and money is spent. As mentioned before, to help employees to offset their expenses when buying oseibo or ochugen gifts, companies will give them bonuses in the months of June and December.
Increasingly, people may feel burdened and uncomfortable when they think of the expectations that are accompanied with the gifts. The expectations of the giver that are embedded within the gifts itself, may come in the form of taking care and support an individual in the future, helping individuals to make earnings in the share market and many others. The recipient of the gifts may find it hard to reciprocate at some points in the future if he or she has done nothing good.

Recent Trends

As mentioned earlier, due to modernization and increasing urbanization, the practice of traditional giri gift giving is not as prevalent as before. However, this does not mean the end of the practice of this kind of gift giving. Instead modified innovations are practiced instead, such as what is known as “collective” gift giving. Givers of this kind of practices usually already organized into a group such as a school club, neighborhood association, or organize themselves in an ad-hoc basis. This kind of gift giving practice is usually when the recipient is not particularly close to most of the givers and they do not wish to spend time and effort to specially buy a gift yet still feel the obligation to give. An equal amount of money is collected from all the givers and it is either given to the recipient as cash present or the money is use to buy a gift. This invention of “collective” giving exactly captures the dilemma of the new generation caught in between the lack of ninjo to give and giri.

A new business is also on the rise due to the decline of traditional gift giving. The practice of taraimawashi is common, along side giri gift giving as the receiver often have no use for the gift received. The gift is often left unopened for fear of receiving another three bottles of cooking oil (a popular gift) and passed on to another to meet the obligation of gift giving and reciprocity. Another method is to sell the gifts received to pawn brokers who buy up these gifts at 30 percent of the original value and resell it at 50 percent. Often, precious gifts such as Rolex watches and Tiffany bangles are found along side cooking oil, imported coffee powder and other foodstuff simply because someone of high social status receives too many gifts, especially during ochugen and oseibo, that it is too much an effort to even open it.

Another booming business due to gift giving occurs at the central train station of Tokyo. This is because it is the Japanese tradition of bringing back omiyagi (gifts brought back from your travel) when going away on a trip, even a short one over the weekend. Such gifts are a way of thanking the people who took over your responsibilities while you were away to grant you the time off for the trip. Thus in order to help, kiosks in Tokyo central train station cater a range of souvenirs from all over Japan which includes the wrapping paper of the district so that the travelers are able to do their shopping when they return from the trip instead of carrying parcels and packages from wherever they return from, saving them the hassle.


In conclusion, the main idea of gift giving is to demonstrate appreciation and to promote relationships and continual goodwill in the future because relationships and mutual dependence are important to Japanese people.The structure of hierarchy plays an important role in gift giving, and is not only seen in the giving during oseibo and ochugen. It is also one of the factors that influence the value of a gift. Gift giving also has an impact on Japan’s economy due to the amount spent on presents. Also, there is a concept of one gift requires another, and all these make it seem that the process of gift giving will never cease. Recent trends and the rise of a new generation makes it relevant to ponder if this tradition of gift giving and the art of reciprocity will continue in time to come.


1. Befu, Harumi., “Gift-giving In Modernizing Japan” In Japanese Culture and Behaviour, edited by Lebra, T. and Kebra, W., University of Hawaii Press, 1986.
2. Benedict, Ruth, Repaying One-ten-Thousandth In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.
3. Bestor, Theodore, Neighborhood Tokyo, Stanford University Press (ch 6), 1989.
4. Creighton, Millie, ‘Sweet love’ and women’s place: Valentine’s Day, Japan Style”, Journal Popular Culture 27(3) Winter, 1993:1-9.
5. Joseph, Joe, Japanese bearing Gifts: It’s Never the Thought That Counts In The Japanese, Viking Pp. 164,1993.
6. Ogasawara, Y., Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies, Berkeley: University of California Press ( ch 4), 1998.
7. Rupp, Katherine, Gift-giving in Japan: Cash, Connections, Cosmologies, Stanford University Press, 2003.

Sign up for updates

About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

Keep Reading

Leave a Comment