Japan has an abundance of gift-giving situations throughout the year. There are gifts of money on occasions such as weddings and funerals, yearly seasonal presents for company clients and even obligations to buy souvenirs for your coworkers at work.
For those living in Japan, you may agree with me that it feels like there are twice as many! Naturally, it’s great when you are on the receiving side. But sometimes troublesome when you are the one who has to do the giving…
On top of it being a hassle, you can’t always give what you want to. Sometimes there is a certain set of rules (sometimes unsaid) and common sense (Japanese common sense) that needs to be followed.
In this post, let’s go over a gift-giving situation that you will definitely encounter in the workplace as an ALT. Giving ‘Omiyage’ souvenirs to your coworkers!
‘Omiyage’ Souvenirs: An Obligation in Japan
An Omiyage is a souvenir, but unfortunately not for yourself. These omiyage souvenirs are the gift you bring back from traveling for the people waiting back at home. Such as family, friends, co-workers, neighbors e.t.c. Whether it be your overseas trip to Italy or to the zoo in the next city over, if you go somewhere out of the ordinary, you have to bring some omiyage souvenirs back.
To put it simply, if you go somewhere cool, you have to bring something cool back!
It’s like an unsaid rule. The Japanese know that they have to buy omiyage souvenirs and are also expecting them. So you will find train stations, airports, tourist spots and nearly any place with a public attraction will always have a vendor for them. These shops will be selling famous or popular sweets, food, and goods in the local area. All wrapped up all nice and pretty, ready to be given. In newer complexes or attractions you may even find a whole floor dedicated to omiyage shops.
How Did the Souvenir Culture Actually Start?
The origin of the omiyage culture isn’t 100％ clear. But from the information I have gathered, it seems that it started back in the Edo Period.
Back in the old days, people from all over Japan would make sacred pilgrimages to the Isejingu Shrine in Mie Prefecture. A representative from villages would be selected to go on this pilgrimage and receive a blessing. For their travels, they would be given ‘senbetsu’ a gift of money from the village people. In return, they would be expected to bring back items such as charms, and rice wine cups as a sign of the blessing. It was thought that the blessing was transferred to the recipient through this item.
This return item was called ‘miyage’ (宮笥) and is said to be where the word ‘omiyage’ originates from. The pilgrimage to the Isejingu Shrine became more popular and shops started to pop up targeting the ‘potential customer’ pilgrims, selling local specialty products.
This product was also in turn called ‘miyage’ and is said to be how the kanji character changed from ‘宮笥’ to ‘土産’. ‘土’ literally meaning ground/land/area and ‘産’ meaning produce/product.
In addition, the pronunciation of the word ‘miyage’ is also said to be adapted from the word ‘miage’ ‘(見上げ) which meant ‘a gift that you give after choosing carefully’.
What Omiyage Souvenirs are like Now in Japan
Omiyage souvenirs are still very much important today and centered around local products of the area you visit. However, receiving ‘senbetsu’ has become quite rare. (You may still receive senbetsu if you are going somewhere far for a long time).
When you bring back omiyage souvenirs, it’s like saying:
“Thanks for looking after things while I was gone!”
“I went somewhere really cool and I want to share my experience with you!”
“I’m sorry (but not really) for being selfish and taking days off. Here’s a little something so don’t get too sour at me!”
If you are going somewhere out of the ordinary then the people who know about it will most likely be expecting something when you get back. Even if it is something really small, you MUST bring something back.
Sounds daunting right? No problem! here is a quick guide to help you with ideas.
5 Tips when Buying Omiyage Souvenirs for your Japanese Coworkers
1. Food is your best choice
With the average Japanese house/apartment being significantly smaller than in the west, limited space is an ongoing problem. So instead of adding to their clutter, something perishable like food is a good option. Also, if you give food that someone by chance doesn’t like or can’t eat, they can throw it away secretly with ease. It can be difficult to throw away a character teddy bear.
Extra Tip: Buy the most famous food for the area you visit. Even if they don’t like it or can’t eat it, there is a high chance that they will still be excited about getting something rare and interesting.
2. Buy a box of individually wrapped food
In addition to the above, if you buy food, aim for the omiyage souvenirs that are individually wrapped. You will usually be able to find a box with 9, 12, 15 e.t.c separately wrapped pieces inside. This takes away the hassle of cutting up and dividing it for everyone. You can just put the box somewhere in the communal area for everyone to take. Or give them out one by one.
Extra Tip: Make sure you know exactly how many people you are bringing back for. If you only have a rough idea make sure to buy just a little more because you don’t want to be caught short.
3. Think about the long trip back home
When you buy omiyage, think about the weight and size. If you are traveling with a lot then the extra few kg’s in your suitcase of omiyage souvenirs you have to carry will be a total nuisance. Omiyage can get heavy so it’s best to think ahead and also buy them on the last day of your trip on the way home.
Extra Tip: If you have a long haul back then be careful of food that contains cream. Also the omiyage souvenirs that aren’t in a sturdy box. In the summer, food with cream can go off quickly and souvenir boxes can get quite a beating when you lug it around all day long. If necessary, some department store shops can send your omiyage souvenirs back to your house for a decent price so keep this option in mind.
4. The packaging can be important too
Sometimes the name or the looks of the omiyage souvenir itself is more appealing than the actual taste. Try and find omiyage that represents where you have been.
Extra Tip: Even if you don’t know much about the area you are going to, the No.1 omiyage souvenir is easy to find. At any omiyage shop, the number one omiyage will be right at the front with sparkling lights around it. So when in doubt, go for the safe option.
5. What if I forget?!
If you completely forget or just don’t have the time, remember something is better than nothing. Whatever food, keychains e.t.c you can get your hands on before heading back will do the trick. Of course, if someone asked you to pick up something in particular, then well you just have to find a way!
Extra Tip: When you are really stuck, you may find that larger train stations or highway rest areas will stock omiyage souvenirs from different prefectures. The selection, of course, is very limited and the closer you get to home the less chance you have. But sometimes you may be lucky. So don’t give up too fast!
The Ultimate Piece of Omiyage Advice
If you know you won’t have enough time to go shopping, don’t have the funds or plain just can’t be bothered, the easiest thing you can do it STAY QUIET.
When you are planning to go somewhere, just don’t tell anyone. Keep your SNS posts private and don’t bring that pen you bought from your trip to Disneyland last weekend to work. If no-one knows about your plans then there is no expectation for you to bring something back for them.
Very simple right?