In Japanese society, gift giving is a major custom with gifts being given not only on special occasions but as a social duty or obligation. Gifts are traditionally given at O-chugen in summer and at O-seibo, the end of a year. In addition, when a person returns from a trip, business or pleasure, he or she is expected to bring back Omiyage (souvenirs) from the area they have visited.
Read more about how kokeshi dolls became a popular Omiyage from Northern Japan in our kokeshi history page.
The nature of the gift is less important than the act of giving itself. Often, the gift is not of a personal nature, with foodstuffs and alcohol, such as sake, being popular gift items.
At a wedding, guests traditionally give money to the happy couple and on their return from honeymoon, the newly-weds bring back souvenirs to give to their wedding guests. Similarly when a child is born, the parents give gifts, commemorating the child's birth, to their family and friends. Gifts are not traditionally given at birthdays or Christmas, though this is rapidly becoming a modern custom adopted from the West.
Valentine's day in Japan is celebrated rather differently than in the West. Japanese women give chocolates - giri choco (obligatory chocolate) and honmei choco (chocolate for the man she is serious about) - to their male friends and colleagues. Since the 1980s, a new custom has arisen where, on White Day, 14th March, a Japanese man gives more expensive chocolates or sweets back to the women that gave a gift to him on Valentine's Day.
Great care is taken in wrapping the gift and a furoshiki (colourful cloth) is often used to carry it. The colour of the wrapping paper can be significant with red symbolising life and vitality, and white representing purity and cleanliness. The gift is very seldom unwrapped in the presence of the giver, this preferably being done in private.
The Japanese word for shi (four) sounds like the word for death and for this reason gift sets are rarely given in sets of four. Five is the most commonly used number
A set of five sake cups