What do you think about when you choose a gift for a friend? Perhaps, something meaningful to them? A gift for a Japanese colleague in the office? What if you are choosing a gift for someone you have never met – you could be choosing something for your business partner in Japan before leaving for a meeting with them. All of a sudden, you’re struck by a question – “I wonder if there are cultural differences in gift giving…?”
I list here 15 things that should be avoided as a gift in Japan. Having said that, I am not trying to teach you or preach to you that you must do this or you will offend Japanese people’s feelings. What’s most important is that it’s the thought that counts after all, so please relax and enjoy this introduction to Japanese culture.
I think, usually, people have a margin for foreign friends for making cultural errors. I mean, people are more tolerant and understanding towards foreigners when it comes to ignorance of their customs, in general – “because they’re only visiting the country, they just can’t necessarily know these things.”
Vice versa, if you knew these things, the Japanese recipients would appreciate your consideration all the more, and it proves your respect towards the recipient’s culture. It would almost promise the successful communication afterwards, wouldn’t it?
Knowing these 15 things to avoid can come in handy when you do come across such occasions, as you’ll know the answers already so nobody needs to panic – you’ll be ready to pick appropriate presents or enlighten people who need a piece of advice on this subject.
What you should NOT give as a gift.
Japanese custom and tradition are deeply seated in the influence of Shinto philosophy, whether they consciously acknowledge this or not. Although I wrote down Japanese gift giving taboos, there are some that are similar to Chinese, simply because they are to do with the sound coming from Chinese characters.
For Celebrations – in general
1. Tea Why? – It is not recommended to choose tea as a gift for most celebrations, because gift wrapped tea is often used as a return gift for funerals or wakes in Japan
2. Handkerchiefs Why? – In Chinese characters, it writes手布 and is read “tegire”[such as ‘tay-ghee-ray’] and its homonym is 手切れ which means to sever a connection or relationship and it is easily and naturally associated with alimony or severance pay. There was a scene in an old film in which I saw that a man (or woman? I can’t remember) hand a handkerchief to his girlfriend as a message of ‘goodbye’…!
3. Comb Why? – Comb in Japanese is “Kushi,” and the sound of ‘ku’ is the same as 苦 (=suffering) and ‘shi’ is the same as 死 (=death), which is obviously not celebratory and it isn’t appropriate at all. Also, combs and hairbrushes are for hair and a lot of people (especially women) may not feel comfortable sharing them with other people, as there is a superstitious reason that the owners bad luck will be passed on to the borrower.
4. Chrysanthemum Why? – Chrysanthemum is commonly seen at funerals and there are many people who associate it with sad occasions. That being said, there are Chrysanthemum Festivals which are popular, hence it is not always necessarily associated with funerals, so I would say it depends on how the recipient feels – personally I wouldn’t risk it.
5. Clock Why? – Not so much in Japan, but more significant in China, a clock suggests a ‘time limit’ and you don’t want that when you wish for a long lasting relationship such as business partnership or friendship.
For Get-Well Gift
6. Potted Plants Why? – pot plants are rooted, in Japanese they are ”netsuku” [as in ‘neh-tsu-koo’] and in Chinese characters it is written as根付く, and its homonym 寝付く means “bed-ridden” – obviously you don’t want to give such a message to the person you hope recovers.
7. Camellia, Poppy or Cyclamen Why? – A flower of Camellia drapes or drops, and it connotes a head dropping; poppy blossoms are easy to break and scatter which provokes a negative image of a person falling apart; for Cyclamen, it is called ‘shikuramen’ (シクラメン) in Japanese and the first syllable of ‘shi’ (シ＝死) [as in ‘she’] – once again – is associated with ‘death’ and ‘ku’ (ク＝苦) [as in ‘koo’] – once again – is associated with ‘suffering.’
8. Non-Consumable Gifts Why? – As the person you are visiting recovers and recuperates, you hope and wish that their illness will have exhausted, and not remain in the body of the person. Therefore it is believed to be good to select things that can be used up or eaten up itself whilst in hospital, such as soap, fruit, tea or coffee etc.
For Celebrating Wedding
9. Scissors or Knives Why? – Scissors or knives signify cutting – for example, “cut the ties,” whereas matrimony or a wedding symbolises unity between two people and two families, so it is considered inappropriate to give a tool to cut as a gift for that occasion.
10. China/Stoneware Why? – China, porcelain, stoneware, glassware… they connote ‘breaking.’ Therefore, it is not considered ideal to choose as a gift, like scissors and knives. Quite obvious, when you come to think of it, isn’t it?
11. Mirror Why? – Again, the reason is similar to china/stoneware – it ‘breaks’ and ‘cracks.’ However, I would like to add a detail reason which is specific to mirrors. It is often associated with the spiritual world or the other side of the world, so some people associate mirrors with souls or spirits. For example, it is considered unlucky to set a mirror facing your body in bed as if the mirror steals your soul from your body.
12. Lighter or Ash Tray Why? – Lighters and ash trays are considered inappropriate as a gift for new home because it is associated with ‘fire.’ Things that may convey the meaning of ‘fire,’ ‘smoke’ and ‘tip (lean)’ – negative connotations in this context.
For People in a Senior Position or Older than you
13. Shoes or Boots Why? – Shoes or boots are for the feet and therefore they are associated with the idea of ‘stomping’ and giving such things as a gift may be construed as “I am stomping over you (soon),” which is not a good message to send your bosses…
14. Belt Why? – Giving your boss or someone who is high up in the hierarchy a belt may be construed as a message from you meaning “hey boss, you need to tighten up (you look flabby).”
15. Pens Why? – Pens are typically chosen as a gift from a teacher to their students or from someone senior to their junior in Japan, therefore, if you do that the other way around it could be considered rude or even condescending.
Numbers: Good and Bad
3, 5 and 7 are generally considered good numbers specially for wedding in Japan, at weddings, a congratulatory gift of money is usually given and giving even numbers is considered bad luck, as they can be easily ‘divided.’ So, for example 30,000 yen (approx. 200 pound) – i.e. three 10,000 yen notes (ideally new notes for a brand-new start) – for a single person and 50,000 (approx. 300 pound) yen – five 10,000 yen notes – for a couple that are invited are largely accepted.
8 – In Chinese character, eight is 八 and the shape signifies (top to bottom) success, prosperity or wealth, as things that start narrow gradually broaden.
4 and 9 – The number 4 can be read in two ways as ‘yon’ and ‘shi’ in Japanese. Also the number 9 can be read in two ways as ‘kyu’ and ‘ku.’ And then, as I mentioned a couple of times before, in Japanese the syllable of ‘shi’ (し＝死) – has the same phonetic sound as ‘death’ and ‘ku’ (く＝苦) – is likewise the same sound as ‘suffering.’ These sounds convey quite a negative and unfortunate meaning. Oddly enough, for this very reason, many hospitals avoid using these numbers for patients’ room numbers or floor numbers i.e. there would be room number 101,102 and 103, but after 103, there wouldn’t be 104 but the next number would be 105 instead.