No matter what society you live in, or what language you speak, the sentiment expressed in English by the words “thank you” is one of the most powerful things you can say to someone. It is the recognition of each other’s help that binds societies together.
But as we all know, “actions speak louder than words”. And that is why the culture of gift-giving is so pervasive. Here in Japan, salaried workers usually get two bonuses per year. It is not a coincidence that these occur during the traditional gift-giving seasons of ochugen and oseibo.
While ochugen and oseibo are similar, there are some differences. Ochugen comes around in summer and is sometimes connected with Obon festivals. Traditionally, people would give gifts to their elder family members and senior members of society who had helped them that year. Parents, grandparents, doctors, teachers, and bosses were often the recipients of these tokens of appreciation. These days, however, people give gifts more freely to anyone that has lent a helping hand or supported them.
In many parts of Japan, summer is a battle against fierce heat and unforgiving humidity. Big cities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, are infamous for the dreaded summer soup! For this reason, fresh fruits and thirst-quenching drinks are popular. You may have seen photos of picture-perfect melons on your social media feeds; these are popular gifts in this season.
As with any gift, the most crucial point is the thought behind it. A single, beautiful, perfectly formed piece of fruit is a gesture as much as it is a healthy and delicious snack. This is also why some people will spend up to 10,000 yen (around $100) on square watermelons, which are actually unripe and inedible!
Ochugen gifts should also be wrapped beautifully. When you buy gifts for ochugen, they will usually be wrapped in special paper with the characters for ochugen written on them. They are sometimes then also wrapped in traditional furoshiki – fabrics used especially for wrapping gifts.
In the past, Japan’s ruggedly mountainous terrain meant that travel between cities was arduous and consequently rare for most. This relatively high degree of isolation led to the great diversity of local foods in Japan. Similar dishes may be found all over the archipelago, but everyone prefers their hometown’s take on popular dishes.
During ochugen, the ingredients of such local foods are a popular choice for gifting. For example, you might receive fresh mangos from Okinawa, buttery beef from Kobe, or super thin inaniwa noodles from Akita. All would be welcome gifts!
Coming at the end of the year, oseibo is the second gift-giving season in Japan. As the year draws to a close, many people look back and contemplate the year gone by. To show their appreciation for those who have helped them in some way, Japanese like to give oseibo gifts.
Much like ochugen gifts, the gifts given during oseibo are often foods, sweets, and other snacks. Alcohol is also very popular at this time of year, perhaps because of the many bonenkai (literally “forget the year party”) that people attend with friends and co-workers.
Oseibo tends to be a little more common than ochugen because of the time of year. However, both are quite widely celebrated. Oseibo culture is also common among businesses. Many companies give oseibo gifts to their clients, vendors and other important contacts to help cement relationships.
While gifts for both ochugen and oseibo should be chosen to best suit the recipient, there are a few things that should always be avoided. Products that sound like or include the numbers 4 and 9, for example, are taboo because these words sound like the words for death in Japanese. Knives are also avoided due to the symbolism of cutting (as in the ending of a relationship). Similarly, stationery and items like watches, which carry the meaning of work, are also not given during these seasons.
So, if you live in Japan and want to take part in the gift-giving traditions of ochugen or oseibo, remember these tips:
- Choose something seasonal
- Consider what your recipient might enjoy
- Stay away from items with unfortunate symbology
- Pay attention to the presentation
What is the gift-giving culture like in your country? Is it seasonal, or are gifts given freely at any time? What kinds of gifts are popular, and how are they presented? These are the sorts of questions our valued partners and ambassadors ask themselves every time they curate a box! By the careful consideration of these points, and others, the bonds that tie us together – whether in business or our personal relationships – can be strengthened to last a lifetime.
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