Author: Onomatopoeia

The Past and Present of the Gift Kingdom, Japan

Japan has the traditional culture of giving seasonal gifts to their relatives, friends and business partners. What is the origin of the custom of giving gifts? And how has the tradition been changing?

My coworker, Santa Claus

“This wine has a great taste, so please give it a try. I’ve got more than enough this year already,” said a junior coworker of mine, handing me the gorgeous looking burgundy bottle one day in December. On that day, he went around his section in our office to distribute many kinds of alcoholic beverages as gifts to his boss and other senior workers.

He is actually from a rich family, as his grandfather was a top level executive of JXTG Nippon Oil and Energy Corporation, a company known as ENEOS in Japan. That’s why his family always gets a large number of quality gifts, especially wine and sake, from various business partners during the year end Oseibo gift season. But no one in his family drinks much, so he gives away some of the Oseibo presents to others.

This annual gift-giving works well for him, who can shrink the pile of presents accumulating in his house, and for his colleagues including me, who get to enjoy the taste of great delicacies free of charge. I often said to myself, “hurrah, Santa Claus is coming to work!”

The origin of the Ochu-gen and Oseibo

In Japan, there is a long standing custom of exchanging gifts twice a year – in midsummer and early winter – mainly with your relatives and business acquaintances to express your gratitude to them for what they have done for you over the year. The gifts sent or received for these seasons are called Ochu-gen (お中元) in summer and Oseibo (お歳暮) in winter. I would say this practice is more ritualistic when compared to Christmas, when gifts are exchanged casually with friends or significant others.

The custom is said to have originated in the Edo Period. At that time in Edo, the former name of Tokyo, the main dwellings for commoners were “nagaya” buildings, one-story flat style wooden apartment houses. Residents of nagaya visited their landlord (大家, o-ya) twice a year to pay their rent, at around the midsummer Bon(盆) season and at the end of Shiwasu (師走), the old name of December.

In addition to the rent money owed, some of the dwellers gave seasonal foods or drinks to show extra care and appreciation, especially if asking for a rent discount or other favor. As time passed by, this biannual payment system started to take root among the merchants in other businesses too. They could use the gifts similarly to express gratitude to business partners, or butter them up to ask for more partnerships down the road.

One-size-fits-all gifts

As a business expands and create more partnerships, the time and expense of giving Ochu-gen and Oseibo presents becomes too much. Back in the Edo period, people delivered their gifts in person, but advances in transportation and logistics means now that gifts can be delivered by couriers using cars or motorbikes.

Choosing the perfect gift in tune with each partner’s individual tastes is also a feat too difficult for busy, modern companies. So companies end up narrowing gift choices to fit their budget and to appeal to the majority of clients.

The following are some of the standard items for Ochu-gen and Oseibo:

① alcoholic beverages such as wine or beer
② cooking oils
③ seasonings
④ canned foods
⑤ detergent and soap bars

As you can see from the list, products that keep long on the shelf and almost everyone uses are popular to choose from. Cookies or biscuits are, of course, among the popular choices as they last longer than any other type of cakes. Generic gifts such as certificates or gift cards are also a smart option because they can save you the time and effort of choosing a specific item.

“We don’t drink…”

Vintage wine or whisky would be something irresistible to get if you were fond of drinking. But not everyone drinks alcohol; should you worry about this when choosing gifts? What about allergies to certain desserts? Of course it’s ideal to know the preferences of the receiver to avoid mischoosing your gift. But in general, the spirit of seasonal gifting is “it’s the thought that counts,” so don’t stress too much.

Interestingly, some people use the Ochu-gen and Oseibo seasons to reward themselves with their hard work by treating themselves to special delicacies. For example, they might have high-quality meat or seafood delivered fresh from the manufacturer to create an exquisite meal at home.

Nowadays, the gift seasons usually start in full swing on the first weekend after workers are paid their bonuses, because then they have a little extra money to spend. Department stores and supermarkets are extremely busy on those days, but enjoy some of the highest sales of the year. Recently even convenience stores have services for ordering and delivering gift items, so it should be easy and affordable for anyone who wants to join in the tradition.

By Onomatopoeia
An instructor English conversation school.
A certified guide-interpreter of English.
A working mother of two children.

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