Gift giving in Japan is important for foreign marketers to understand both in terms of potential opportunities as well as for insight into Japanese consumers.
While there are various occasions and settings where people might exchange gifts in Japan, not all of these events and celebrations may warrant specific marketing campaigns for most businesses; this is especially true for things like birthdays or weddings, which happen year-round.
Seasonal gift-giving events in Japan, or those tied in with holidays, on the other hand, are incredibly important for Japanese marketers and many businesses in the retail and ecommerce space place a great deal of emphasis on these occasions.
Like many Western countries (e.g. the USA), Japan’s major gift-giving seasons generally take place in the colder months of autumn and winter—with one notable exception.
In this article we will talk about the major occasions, both traditional and imported in origin, in which the Japanese give gifts and exchange presents with one another.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
The first major gift-giving custom in Japan we’d like to introduce is Oseibo (お歳暮). Oseibo, is one of two traditional periods during the year in which Japanese purchase gifts for people to whom they feel a particular sense of gratitude or indebtedness.
When it comes to Oseibo, both Japanese individuals and companies take part in this custom, which is one of the reasons it has historically been such an important gift-giving occasion.
Popular Oseibo gift items include consumables, specifically food and drink. Meticulously wrapped confectionaries, specialty fruits, traditional foodstuffs, and regional specialties are all popular items when it comes to Oseibo.
The closest equivalent to an Oseibo gift in countries like the US, might be something akin to a gift basket. But don’t be fooled; Oseibo gifts aren’t simply a modest basket of generic fruits and can be extremely luxurious. In typical Japanese fashion, the practice of Oseibo is gift-giving elevated to a high level of sophistication.
Another traditional custom with regard to gift giving in Japan, Ochugen (お中元), is nearly indistinguishable from Oseibo in its modern incarnation. While there are a number of potential origins behind the custom, the biggest defining characteristic of Ochugen today is that it occurs during the mid-summer months.
Another notable difference, practically speaking, is the relative lack of emphasis when compared to Oseibo, particularly in recent years.
Ochugen is far less celebrated by Japanese than Oseibo, and receives much less attention from businesses compared with Oseibo. Part of this may have to do with the attention that the end of the year events and festivities get in general. With Oseibo, Christmas, end of the year parties, and New Year’s all happening in quick succession, the end of the year is a flurry of activity in Japan.
Whatever the reason, Ochugen nowadays has a tendency to be more focused on sending gifts to extended family and relatives, rather than the broader categories of individuals who many Japanese might give Oseibo gifts. That being said, if someone in Japan did you a solid favor or really helped you out early on in the year Ochugen season might be a good time to show your appreciation rather than wait until the end of the year for Oseibo.
Where to Buy Oseibo and Ochugen Gifts in Japan
Among the most popular places to purchase Oseibo gifts are Japan’s major department stores. With dedicated pages on their online stores and yearly catalogs showcasing all the available products, these kinds of Oseibo gifts tend to be for people who want to make a statement or impression with their gift.
While one could purchase a more limited range of normal goods or products in special Oseibo gift sets from a supermarket, there is still something to be said about buying your gift from one of the storied Japanese department stores. In fact, despite the growing competition from online retailers, when it comes to Oseibo, department stores still reign supreme.
NOTE: As a traditional gift-giving practice, there are a number of customs and rules to be aware of when it comes to Oseibo and Ochugen in Japan. Certain items would never be considered appropriate as gifts for either Oseibo or Ochugen as they carry certain negative meanings in the context of both of these customs. Furthermore, there are also certain practices which are commonly observed with regard to packaging and sending, that are important to consider.
Changing Gift-giving Trends of Japanese Consumers: Oseibo and Ochugen
While the custom of giving gifts in Japan remains strong, traditional occasions for giving tokens of appreciation are not followed nearly as much as they were in the past.
In recent years the custom of both Oseibo and Ochugen has become less prevalent, especially among younger generations. This decline can be attributed to a number of reasons, however, one which stands out most prominently has to do with changing thoughts and perceptions among Japanese consumers towards the acts of purchasing and giving gifts.
As a growing percentage of the population in Japan tends to reject notions of obligation when it comes to the act of giving gifts, many are choosing to think of gift giving as a more intimate expression shared with close, personal relations.
Regionality and Generational Considerations: Oseibo and Ochugen
Oseibo and Ochugen also highlights another marked difference between Japanese consumers living in the countryside versus those living in cities.
Those living in the Japanese countryside are more likely than their counterparts in the cities to continue this particular gift-giving custom, while still also taking part in the biggest imported holidays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day (which we will also cover in this article).
As already touched on earlier, generational differences are also readily apparent when it comes to Oseibo and Ochugen.
Older generations are far more likely to engage in Oseibo and Ochugen than younger Japanese, and this has been the case for a number of years. In fact, for many in the younger generation Oseibo and Ochugen are things that only their grandparents or older relatives do.
That being said, Oseibo is an enduring custom, and still has plenty of adherents.
As with most things, very traditional Japanese companies, businesses, and individuals will undoubtedly seek to preserve this aspect of Japanese culture. However, for many Japanese people the idea of gifts for this purpose has also changed from waiting until a specific season or time period, to more immediate expressions of one’s thanks and appreciation.
While these traditional Japanese gift-giving occasions have become less popular, imported holidays, such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day are two of the biggest events celebrated in Japan.
Christmas in Japan
Christmas, while not an official holiday in Japan, is one of the biggest events of the year, especially when it comes to gift giving. However, foreign marketers should take note that Christmas does not really mean the same thing in Japan as it does in the West.
When Japanese speak of Christmas most are really talking about Christmas Eve and it’s celebrated as a time for couples and romance as opposed to a secular holiday or an occasion for extended family gatherings (although Japanese families with small children do tend to prepare gifts from Santa for the kids). Friends may also gather and exchange gifts, but this is still the minority.
Other unique aspects of the Japanese Christmas experience include the choice of food.
In “traditional” Japanese Christmas celebrations, KFC (i.e. Kentucky Fried Chicken) and “Christmas cake” are both considered holiday staples. Both KFC and Christmas cake are so popular in Japan that reservations are taken a couple of months in advance for pickup on the big day.
Christmas Gift Giving in Japan
While fewer Japanese are sending gifts during Oseibo and Ochugen, Christmas is incredibly big business in Japan.
It’s not uncommon to see Christmas-related decorations or goods start appearing in stores as early as October as retailers and businesses ramp up their marketing efforts towards shoppers who are already thinking of gifts and presents they want to buy and potentially receive.
As previously mentioned, Christmas in Japan tends to have a strong connotation of romance. This still remains true to a large degree. Besides couples exchanging gifts with one another, however, more families and friends are also doing gift exchanges, which is one of the reasons Christmas has continued to grow in size and importance as a gift-giving event in Japan.
Furthermore, unlike the Oseibo and Ochugen tradition, everything is essentially fair game when it comes to Christmas gifts, and for this reason there are potential opportunities for many kinds of businesses.
Valentine’s Day in Japan
Valentine’s Day is another holiday imported from the West, that not only has taken on its own meaning in Japan but also represents a major occasion when certain kinds of gifts are exchanged.
As just mentioned, Valentine’s Day in Japan is celebrated slightly differently compared to other countries. In Japan it is the women who give men chocolate, sweets, and other confectionaries on Valentine’s Day.
But worry not, one month later, on March 14th or “White Day” men are given the opportunity to return the favor with gifts of their own. However, this manufactured holiday is very much overshadowed by Valentine’s Day in Japan. In fact, one does not even have to give anything in return. Essentially, White Day is a much more casual affair, and gifts can be quite wide-ranging, although traditionally there are certain gift items—such as cookies—which are commonly given.
Where to Buy Valentine’s Day Gifts in Japan
Similar to Oseibo, the department store, specifically the basement floors or depachika (デパ地下) features prominently in any discussion about Valentine’s Day in Japan.
In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, many of the most popular department stores here in Tokyo, such as Isetan, Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, etc., get especially crowded as the predominantly female customers look to purchase their gifts. Long lines of customers snake their way in the packed aisles, in between display cases and booths, where confectioners and famous sweets makers have permanent outposts and this sight is a testament to how big of a deal Valentine’s Day is in Japan.
Types of Valentine’s Day Chocolates in Japan
Although other gifts can be exchanged, chocolate is the star of the show when it comes to Valentine’s Day in Japan. Depending on the giver’s feelings and one’s relationship with them, chocolates can fall into a number of categories, which we’ve outlined below.
Honmei choco (本命チョコ) is any chocolate reserved for that special someone. It could be an expensive, assorted box of Swiss chocolates, it could be a homemade creation. There really is no strict definition for what is or is not Honmei choco. It doesn’t need to be expensive or homemade at all, the main thing that makes chocolate “Honmei choco” is the feelings the giver has towards its intended recipient. That being said, most people do tend to make it obvious what kind of chocolate they’re giving.
Giri choco (義理チョコ) or “obligation chocolate” is chocolate that doesn’t have any sort of romantic feelings attached to it. Typically this kind of chocolate is given to work colleagues, bosses, and managers. It’s also the chocolate that one would give to male classmates or friends.
Tomo choco (友チョコ) or “friend chocolate” is chocolate that girls give to their friends who also happen to be girls.
Jibun choco (自分チョコ) or “my chocolate” is chocolate that one buys specifically for themselves to enjoy.
Changing Gift-giving Trends of Japanese Consumers: Valentine’s Day
Like Oseibo and Ochugen the trend in Japan when it comes to Valentine’s Day recently is a rejection of obligation.
Even as an imported custom, which originally took on an entirely different meaning built around the idea of obligation, the fact of the matter is that contemporary Japanese are rejecting the custom of giving gifts based solely on this concept. Instead they are treating the act of gift giving as something to be done with those who they share a close or intimate relationship with (e.g. Honmei choco).
In practice this means that Giri choco is becoming less common in office and work environments, while giving Valentine’s chocolates or gifts to friends–or even buying chocolates for oneself–can be seen as filling in, if not overtaking, the gap left behind from this change.
Bottom Line: Gift Giving in Japan
Gift giving, in all its many forms, is a major part of both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture.
Whether it be a local confectionary presented to a friend upon returning from a trip or a token of appreciation to a business partner, these gestures help build and maintain relationships in Japanese society.
While the idea of obligation as the primary driver behind gift-giving has weakened considerably from previous generations, gift giving to friends, family, and significant others continues to thrive and grow among Japanese consumers.
As a result of the number of occasions where gifts are presented and exchanged, traditional gift-giving seasons in Japan as well as imported holidays may potentially present an opportunity for the right kind of businesses.
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