Bishop: JinK-san, I noticed something interesting during my latest visit to
JinK: What’s that?
Bishop: Tokyo station has a lot of souvenir shops that sell “o-miyage”
JinK: Yes, it’s part of Japanese culture to buy o-miyage for family,
co-workers and acquaintances when you go on a business trip or
Anywhere you go in Japan will sell o-miyage, not just Tokyo.
The purpose of o-miyage is to share a little bit of the things and
experiences from the place that you went with those who couldn’t
go there themselves.
I would bet Japan is one of the top selling markets in the world for
o-miyage. There are a lot of different creative products and
they vary quite a bit from place to place. The market size is
estimated about 2.5 trillion yen ($20 billion USD).
Bishop: I agree. It’s a great custom. It’s a good excuse to share gifts
with people, and it’s always nice to receive them as well.
Giving gifts to people who you interact with frequently keeps relationships
smooth. It’s always nice to get limited-edition things; if there’s something
you can only get in a specific region, its value goes up and the recipient
is happy to receive it.
JinK: And since they’re not so expensive – usually between $5 to $30,
it’s a fairly informal, casual exchange.
So what was the interesting thing you noticed?
Bishop: A lot of the o-miyage shops would post a ranking of which items were
most popular. Sometimes they just highlight the best selling item, and
sometimes they will display the ranking, #1, #2 and #3.
JinK: Now that you mention it, you don’t really see those kind of signs in the U.S.
But it makes sense if you think about it. The customer is a traveler who has
probably knows very little about the local product. Knowing what others
have bought helps them feel safe about making a purchase.
Bishop: Feel safe?
JinK: Yes. Safe, or “bunan” in Japanese, if you interpret it literally means without
any trouble. To put it another way, you can never go too wrong with o-miyage.
You can never know whether someone will like what you give them, but
by buying the most popular item, you’re at least increasing the chances that
they will like it.
Also there’s the fact that popular items get sold the most,
so there’s lower chance that it will be old.
Bishop: Ah, so kind of like the old expression,
“Nobody ever got fired for using IBM.”
So if ou buy the top seller, nobody can blame you.
JinK: I don’t think anyone would blame you if you are giving them a gift.
At the very least, it shows that they took the time to think of you and
purchase you something.
But yes I think there is the feeling that you’ll be fine if you just buy
whatever the best seller is.
Bishop: But it seems that doesn’t account for individual tastes.
In the U.S., when you receive a gift, you’re much happier if it’s
something that’s tailored to your specific likes, rather than
just something popular.
So it’s a lot more common to ask gift recipients what they like and
don’t like. For instance, I received grapes from someone recently.
Grapes are famous in that region, but I can’t eat them
on the low-carb diet I am doing. On the other hand, if someone
gives me nuts, or beef jerky, or cheese or something, I know
they put thought into my personal needs. To be honest, I do not know
what to do when I get something I cannot eat.
JinK: In that case, you can just give it to someone else. We all get things
we don’t like sometimes, but if they are that popular,
you can regift them easily.
Bishop: That makes sense. I certainly appreciate the gesture,
but it feels like just that – a gesture, with little thought put behind it.
JinK: I understand how you feel. For most casually-given o-miyage,
people just pick them without much thought. I think that fundamentally
there’s a pretty big difference in gift-giving between Japan and the U.S.
Bishop: What’s the difference?
JinK: In the U.S., it’s expected that you give a gift that the recipient they like.
If they don’t like it, they can return it for something they would like better.
Oftentimes there is a “gift receipt” attached without the price on it, so that
people can return it if they don’t like it.
Bishop: Yes, that’s true. As long as you’re going to give a gift, you may as well
give something that the recipient will like.
JinK: I agree that’s probably a more logical system. But in Japan, first of all,
it’s considered rude to ask people what they want. It’s considered poor form
for the recipient of a gift to express desires and expectations of
So when you really put thought into what to get a person, you will ask those
around them what they would like instead of asking them directly.
Also, the recipient won’t open the present at the time they receive it.
Bishop: But isn’t it best to show the gift-giver whether they like it or not?
JinK: Showing whether you like the gift would be an evaluation of not only the gift,
but the thought that went behind the gift.
This is likely to hurt the feelings of the gift-giver, and it’s also rude for the person
receiving something to evaluate the person doing the giving.
So, Japanese people tend not to open gifts upon receiving them. If the gift-giver
asks them to open it, that’s a different story though.
The person giving the gift thinks about what would make the recipient happy,
and the recipient receives the thoughts along with the gifts, and thanks them for it.
The polite way to do it is to thank someone for the thought when you receive the gift,
and after you open it, follow up with a thank you letter for the gift itself and
the thought that went into it.
For Japanese people, the thought is what counts. The item itself is secondary.
Bishop: But as long as you’re receiving something, it may as well be something that you like.
JinK: Today in Japan, we live in a society where everyone already has a lot of things.
So if you get something you don’t really need or like, it’s not such a big deal.
I think close friends would consult each other before buying expensive gifts.
But actually, I’ve found that easily being able to exchange gifts is quite convenient.
Bishop: Isn’t it?
JinK: Still, most Japanese people have a strong aversion toward returning gifts.
Bishop: I still think it’s best to exchange something for something you’d like rather
than keep something you don’t like.
JinK: Logically that’s true. But it’s difficult for Japanese people to do that with gifts.
Japanese people believe that everything has a spirit inside it. So the gift that
you receive from someone is not just a thing; it has their thoughts and feelings
inside it as well.
We can’t just treat the gift as if those feelings didn’t exist. So we have an aversion
to returning gifts. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say we would feel guilty doing so.
To put it another way, the sense of the gifter would be called into question.
They want to think they’ve given something really thoughtful.
In the case of Tokyo Station, most people don’t have a lot of time,
so they tend to rely on the rankings.
But actually, the most Japanese way would be to ask around and think about
what the person would like when buying a gift.
Bishop: That sounds pretty difficult.
JinK: Really? I mean in your case, you’d probably like beef jerky since it’s low in carbs.
Bishop: Um, that would be good, but…
JinK: Just kidding, ha ha. If I was going to bring you something from America,
it would be something more interesting than that.
But don’t you think that the story and surprise behind each gift is better than
just getting exactly what you want?
I think it’s a lot more personal that way anyway…
Fact#17. Japanese people do not return gifts, even if they don’t like them
by Bishop & JinK.