To the Japanese, the art of giving gifts is an excellent way for them to communicate their personal respect, friendship, and appreciation. Visitors to Japan or hosts to a Japanese colleague should always be prepared for a gift giving ceremony. This ceremonial exchange should be announced as to allow for preparation, do not shock your host or visitor. The giving and receiving of gifts is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
In 1977, we received really nice gifts from our Japanese hosts. One of the gifts included a set of traditional style Rosewood Japanese sandals. If you are unfamiliar with this style of sandal, picture a fine, flat piece of wood in the shape of an oval. Now place a padded purple velvet support (vision a flip flop) that fits between your toes. The base of the sandal is 2 blocks of wood running the opposite direction of the oval.
Remember, “This is very good advice. Try to learn what the Japanese regard as “the proper way” of doing all sorts of things that might strike you, an outsider, as unimportant or unnecessary, whether it is an act as simple and automatic as serving tea to any guest who arrives whether or not they are thirsty, or something more subtle as how to receive a gift or decline a compliment.” (Condon, 1984, pg 19). In Japan, never exchange or receive a gift without using both hands.
I treasure my slightly worn gift and it is still in my possession today, however, the gift is for display use only, not daily use. The American guests used the sandals. We decided to wear the gift and walk all over the city in our traditional Japanese sandals like Zatoichi (a blind cane swordsman) my favorite Japanese show. We even wore the sandals to the bath house. Needless to say, we looked a little foolish and most likely left mental scars in the distant memory of our Japanese hosts. I believe the Japanese children thought it was funny at the time, although they may have been laughing at us out of embarrassment for us. Jack Condon spells it out like this, “A person who is embarrassed in public - that is, in such a way that others become aware of it – shares that embarrassment with those of the group.” (Condon, 1984, pg 30).
Fortunately, at eleven years of age we were most likely entertainment over embarrassment, maybe even a novelty.
Gift giving in Japan is a reflection of the Japanese culture and it is so different than the act of gift giving in other countries and cultures. Being aware of the rituals of another culture before you go, can help you avoid costly cultural mistakes. Study hard grasshopper!
Condon, J.C., “With Respect to the Japanese: A Guide for Americans.”
Maine, Intercultural Press, Inc. 1984 ISBN 0-933662-49-1
Dresser, Norine., “Multicultural Manners: New Rules of Etiquette for a Changing Society,” John Wiley & Sons, 1996 ISBN 0-471118-19-2