Omiyage and Japan’s Gifting Culture
The concept of omiyage in Japan refers to the tradition of bringing back souvenirs or small gifts for family, friends, and coworkers after a trip. Of course, gifting is not a specificity of Japanese culture. In every corner of the world, societies developed ways of expressing gratitude and showing appreciation through presents.
But I feel we can explore how the omiyage culture in Japan has turned the act of giving into an institutionalized practice that can often feel burdensome due to the unwritten rules and obligations surrounding it. Valentine’s Day, White Day, New Year, moving to a new place, building a place… The obligatory dimension takes away the joy of giving and receiving unexpected gifts.
Let’s start with the word omiyage
An « omiyage » (お土産) is a Japanese word that means « a specialty drawn from the land ». The Kanji, to whom has learned them, are self-explanatory. The word is written with the kanji for soil (土) and production (産). While it does not necessarily refer only to food items, Japanese people usually bring back sweets or other products typical of the region they visited as souvenirs.
The Japanese are known for their expertise in creating local and seasonal specialties.
Think Kitkats and all the variations Japan offers to the world. Truly, one cannot discover Japan without stumbling in the countless souvenir stores and stalls. They’re everywhere, from the train stations to the airports to roadside stations and tourist areas. Heading to the Fuji 5th station? Gift stores! You will find omiyage for every budget and both sweet and salty tooth.
Prefectures compete in regional products and brands, some so famous that you can somewhat find them all around Japan. Tokyo’s most famous edible omiyage is certainly the Tokyo Banane (to my dismay as I rather find this spongious cake inedible). This banana-shaped cream-filled cake came to be in 1991 and became the city’s official souvenir for one good reason (not its taste): it was the first product to include Tokyo in its name. Bingo! for its maker, the company Grapestone.
So what does omiyage symbolically stand for, really?
Souvenir shops and pop-up stores are located strategically along travelers’ paths. A way to remind (Japanese) people of their duty to pay back their free time: they’re out. Equals: they’re not at the office, at school, or chilling at home. They’re being, well, selfish.
Bringing back little things for the people we care about makes us happy. However, we might feel less enthusiastic to get gifts for bosses and colleagues.
« Sorry » for taking days off.
Bringing back omiyage to your colleagues remains a tenacious tradition in the workplace. The gift acts as a buffer with the team. Indeed, at the heart of the Japanese corporate philosophy, the group comes first. So, the brave soul who dared take some time off has to bring back souvenirs to apologize for inconveniencing the rest of the team. While you ought to buy gifts (and ideally in a quantity matching the number of people that’ll have their hands in the gift basket), the untold rule book is pretty open on the what. And so a mischievous colleague can always choose to bring back some durian cakes…
Japanese people somewhat suck at taking time off (this might not be a Japan-only issue, though). In 2017, employees in Japan took only half of their paid vacations on average: 9.3 days. For reference, the government had set itself a target of 70% by 2020.
« Sorry » for having fun on a business trip.
“What did I just read?” you are thinking. Yes. You should bring some omiyage back from business trips, too. “But I wasn’t off” you mutter. Well, no. But you kinda had the opportunity to goof around during your working hours. You took the Shinkansen or the plane for that Osaka or Sapporo mission. Beats having to commute to the office. Plus, you get to eat local delicacies. Again, on your working hours.
Fortunately, in a good workplace, omiyage is a form of sharing and bonding with people you work with. It has never felt like a (true) obligation to bring back a box of cookies or caramel from France. But I do get how Japanese younger generations are fed up with that sort of social obligation. In recent years, Japan’s work culture has been challenged on many levels, notably its gifting culture. The expectation of bringing back gifts from business trips may be discouraged by companies to promote fairness.