Gifts for Japanese Families?
May 3, 2009 9:03 PM   Subscribe

What are some good gifts for Japanese families? Also, are there any cultural taboos that I should be particularly sure to avoid breaking while staying in Japan?

I'm a twenty-year old male American college student. This summer, my college's band will be doing a tour of Japan and China. The Japan section of the tour involves a number of homestays with Japanese families (either three or four stays). The stays are being arranged through local schools in the cities we're performing in, so our only information about the families are that they'll have at least one child between the ages of 6 and 18. What kinds of gifts should I be bringing to give to the families?

I've done a couple of similar tours in Western Europe, as well as spent a semester studying in Ghana while living with a host family, so I'm fairly comfortable with the guest/host intercultural dynamic. However, I'm not all that familiar with Japanese culture/language. Is there anything I should be especially careful to avoid doing or saying? (e.g., while in Ghana, coming out of the bathroom and then diving into the communal dinner bowl with my left hand).
posted by bassooner to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Bring something special from your home town or country. Also, in Japan you give the gift at the end of the stay, not at the start. When you give the gift, throw in a bow and give the gift with both hands. Some nice wrapping will go a long way too.
posted by avex at 9:14 PM on May 3, 2009

In my experience, most Japanese people, particularly those who would host a foreign student, are very aware of the fact that foreigners are not familiar with various taboos and niceties of Japanese culture, and will be verrrrrry forgiving.

That said, if you're visiting someone's house, make sure to take your shoes off before coming inside. There will be a little antechamber where everyone else has left their shoes, maybe with a pair of sandals that you can put on for inside the house.

As for gifts, souvenir-type things from your home are traditional. You might feel cheesy bringing something from your college gift shop, but it will fit well into what's expected.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:12 PM on May 3, 2009

Avoid giving things in sets of four; shi (4) sounds a lot like the word for death.
posted by jamaro at 10:15 PM on May 3, 2009

Here's something I didn't know until I lived in Japan for a few years. Two flavor combinations that a lot of Japanese people think are weird: 1) mint and chocolate, 2) chocolate and peanut butter. If you're bringing something edible, stay away from those unless your hosts have Western tastes.

Also, house slippers and bathroom slippers are different. You're not expected to bring your own though. Everyone has slippers reserved for guests.
posted by zerbinetta at 10:17 PM on May 3, 2009

2) chocolate and peanut butter.

yeah, you won't find Reese's in Japan, at least not when I was there.

Speaking of which, you seem to be out in BFE Iowa but if you can swing by a See's store their 1lb box of chocolates makes a pretty good gift, size-wise and quality-wise.

Main thing about Japan is pretend your outdoor shoes have got mud on 'em and take them off as you enter the house. And b) don't wear the house slippers on the tatami and c) as mentioned above park the house slippers outside the toilet area.
posted by mrt at 10:26 PM on May 3, 2009

In my limited experience, Japanese people prefer name brands to off brands. I discovered this with wine in particular. Nobody is very impressed with the awesome tiny winery find- they prefer something people have heard of. (This is opposite to the culture I live in.)
posted by small_ruminant at 10:27 PM on May 3, 2009

In case it comes up, it was also pointed out to me that white flowers are a little weird to give, since people associate them with funerals sometimes.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:28 PM on May 3, 2009

1. Don't blow your nose in front of people, especially at the dinner table.

2. Do not walk and drink a coke (or any drink) at the same time.
3. Do not walk and eat a sandwich or candy bar or chew gum at the same time.
4. Take off sunglasses when speaking to people, especially older people.
5. Don't expect people to look you in the eye when you're talking to them.
6. Try to avoid doing so yourself.

7. Avoid attempts at humor, even self-denigrating humor. Westerners often use humor to defuse tense or unfamiliar situations. But what's funny is so culturally specific I caution against any and all attempts at humor unless you are flirting. There is so much room for misunderstanding. This is the one scenario in which you can actually anger a Japanese host or stranger. At the very least, your try at humor will result in added confusion. Just don't do it.

8. If you get a Japanese girlfriend, don't mimic how she speaks. You will end up speaking like a woman, and it matters if you plan to use Japanese later in life. Mimic the men in your life, not the women. It's always painfully obvious (and funny) to listen to foreign men who learn Japanese from their girlfriends.

9. Don't run around town or go to classes in t-shirts and shorts or jeans. You can wear jeans, but with button-down shirts. Don't wear shorts or sandals.

10. If people make gentle suggestions, consider that an order. It's a truism that Japanese don't say "no." Japanese people say "no" all the time, just like anyone else. You just have to know the cues. Gentle suggestions, including those you don't want to hear, are tantamount to yes or no. Also when someone sucks in their breath through their teeth, that's the preface to a no, regardless of the words that follow.

This advice comes from a woman who lived in Japan five years, a lot of that with a Japanese boyfriend who didn't speak a word of English. I was there studying and left with an MA I did in Japanese. I'm now a professor of Japanese history in the US.

I'll post more as I think of them.
posted by vincele at 11:29 PM on May 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

As for gifts, I'd go with an expensive set of Godiva chocolates or tins of fancy English tea. The whole hometown gift approach never really panned out for me. The gifts I brought, perfectly tasteful in my hometown context, always ended up looking really tacky and out of place once they got to Japan.

The most coveted gift of all is beef jerky. For real. In Texas it's specially packaged for Japanese to buy as gifts. You can't go wrong with beef jerky.
posted by vincele at 11:36 PM on May 3, 2009

Hi, I'm Japanese.

In general, since your host families are letting you stay with them knowing that you are a young (hip, since you're in a band) American, it stands to reason that they are going to be very receptive to you, and may even be hosting you with the hope that some of your English will rub off on them/their kids. So the best 'gift' you can bring is yourself. Just be friendly, respectful and polite and you'll be fine. If you make an etiquette faux pas, you may be corrected by they won't hold it against you by any means. Why should they - you're not Japanese and you don't live there. Learn a few Japanese words of greeting beforehand, and you'll make a great impression. (I would add that some of the "rules" posted above by other peeps may apply to people on longer-term stays, but not really for short-term stays.)

As for gifts: I agree generally with what mr_roboto said.

Also, in Japan you give the gift at the end of the stay, not at the start.

Um, not really. Giving a gift at the start of your stay is fine. Although a hometown gift may look tacky to you, anything 'authentically' American is still much appreciated (esp. in this age of global brands), especially by kids. Something edible would be great, since the whole family can share it (and it won't take up space in a typically small Japanese home later), but so would something like T-shirts or other logo-emblazoned stuff from your college, or your band if you have them. Kids love funky T-shirts, especially if they are ones that their friends can't get a hold of. Even if they end up not liking the edible thing that much to eat, the thought is appreciated.

Also, beef jerky has become sort of a cliché gift these days. There are special for-Japan flavors produced and sold by companies that specialize in gifts for expats to bring back or send back home to relatives in Japan. So, unless you are from an area with a real local tradition for jerky, I would avoid it myself. The same goes for any kind of national brand, e.g. Godiva (which is, in my experience, not very liked by most Japanese ppl anyway)
posted by thread_makimaki at 12:17 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

The "gift at the end of the stay" line was supposed to be quoted.
posted by thread_makimaki at 12:18 AM on May 4, 2009

I know that a traditional gift for visiting Japanese sensei is maple syrup. Up here in Canada we get the good stuff, but I'm sure Vermont syrup can pass as well :). Especially if you're from that area.
posted by splice at 4:02 AM on May 4, 2009

If my experiences with all of my Japanese coworkers are safe to generalize from, Reese's peanut butter cups (particularly the tiny ones in the big bags) go over super-well. So do Butterfinger bars, although those are now available here in the international grocers like Seijo Ishii. Flavored coffee may also be a hit, as it simply does not exist in Japan. The main flavor that coffee is available in other than "coffee" is "coffee with milk in it."

Cannot strongly enough agree that the gift should almost certainly be either consumable, local, or both (I brought chocolate-covered pretzels from a chocolate company located ten minutes from my house in the US when I started working here, and they went over really well). A Jelly Belly sampler box will also likely go over extremely well, as they're small enough that their sweetness isn't cloying, it's considered a "premium" item in the US (compared to just plain ol' everyday jelly beans), and jelly beans are basically rare here. In fact, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the Jelly Belly web site has a Japanese section, but lists no stores in Japan that sell them.

Your host families will in fact be very forgiving, and depending on how comfortable they are with English, they may even be willing to correct your mistakes (like wearing slippers into a tatami room — don't do this!), which tends to be really hard for Japanese people to do for various cultural reasons. Basically just remember to wear socks whenever possible, probably go with jeans (although around here in the suburbs of Nagoya I'm already seeing plenty of shorts, since it's already warm), and bear in mind that they're looking for an American to stay at their place, in the hopes of being exposed to some rarely-seen Foreign themselves. And yeah, probably shouldn't directly compliment anything in particular, for fear of the more traditional families insisting they must give it to you.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:01 AM on May 4, 2009

As an American woman who visited Japan and stayed with families the whole time:

Sense of personal space in commuting is much closer than American.

You may get stared at or remarked upon. Embrace the experience. Lots of people approach you wanting to practice their English. If you can say even a few basic phrases, they love it.

Be aware of women's roles---they make knock themselves out to provide food for you, special food, food they took a lot of time to prepare. Whatever you say you like, they will try very hard to provide it---so don't casually mention something extremely difficult to prepare. They may have spent a lot on a costly item such as a mushroom to feed you, and you may have no idea of the expense.

Women, in formal situations, sometimes remove themselves from the table. Don't insist that they join you, it will make everyone very uncomfortable.

They may offer you the communal bath first. Be clean and considerate. Everyone will be using the bath, so don't bath like a Gai Koku Jin. Rinse, soap, soak, rinse.

The toilets squirt you in the ass. A major revelation for this haole. ;)
posted by effluvia at 7:00 AM on May 4, 2009

Giving books, scissors/knives, and sets of four or nine objects can be considered unlucky. Wrap your gifts carefully, but avoid white wrapping.
posted by clearlydemon at 7:58 AM on May 4, 2009

Yeah, my father's former boss gave his Japanese hosts a set of four chef knives when he visited a supplier, and it turned into a major weirdness where the hosts basically just stopped talking to him, and he had to hear from his local rep that he basically told them to kill themselves.
posted by klangklangston at 10:37 AM on May 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

Klang, that is an amazing story. Four knives may be just about the worst gift possible to give to Japanese people, particularly as a "nice to meet you" sort of thing.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:35 PM on May 4, 2009

effluvia probably miss-typed. Japanese bath is rinse, soap, RINSE - all outside the tub, then soak in the tub. Do not put soap into the tub.

I agree with everyone here that local foodstuffs are the best type of gift. It is what my Japanese wife brings as a gift wherever we go.

Possible major faux-pas are to stick your chopsticks in your rice, or to pass food directly from chopsticks to chopsticks - both are parts of funeral services.

Have fun.
posted by birdsquared at 7:50 PM on May 4, 2009

I've been living in Japan for about 15 years now, and I remember well the (EXTREMELY pointless) agonizing I did over what presents to bring. I wasted so much time and effort on deciding presents.

Just bring some desserts. Local if possible, but don't sweat it if there are no local desserts.

For example, I'm from Texas, which has tons of pecans. Boom: chocolate covered pecans.

It really is the thought that counts, more than anything else. If it turns out that the dessert you brought doesn't match their palate, it won't matter, any more than you would be bothered by a birthday card from your child having a spelling mistake. Don't bring something shitty and cheap-looking, and you'll be fine.

Also, I have to take some exception to some of the non-present-related advice presented above:

Go ahead and wear t-shirts. Everybody does, it's no big deal. Perhaps t-shirts used to be declasse, but that hasn't been the case for at least 10 years, if ever.

Go ahead and wear shorts. Japanese generally do NOT wear shorts, but it isn't because they're considered rude or offensive or anything. By wearing shorts, you will look foreign, but not "ugly American" foreign, just "taking a photograph of the temple" foreign or "sitting on a bench looking at a map" foreign.

Don't get all hung up on cultural differences. The thing is: there are a ton of differences between America and Japan. When you ask about them, you can get a ton of answers. However, some of these are regarding extremely minor points, and some are really big things. If you try to learn and retain every single difference, you're just going to drive yourself crazy. Stick to the "taboos", and not just "anything remotely different".

If it makes sense: a taboo is something that will bother folks even though they know you're not Japanese, while a cultural difference is something that might only bother folks if you actually were Japanese.

  • Don't wear your shoes inside the house.
  • If there are slippers in the toilet, remember not to wear them into the house. They're only for toilet use.
  • Get yourself clean OUTSIDE the bathtub before soaking in the bathtub. No dirt or soap should enter the bathtub.
  • Don't stick your chopsticks straight up-and-down in the rice.

posted by Bugbread at 2:27 AM on May 5, 2009

As another Japan expat, I'll just second what thread_makimaki and bugbread said. But really, whomever you meet will understand that you're not Japanese and will therefore not expect you to have a native-level understanding of gift-giving and other cultural norms.

Just be yourself and when in doubt, ask (good advice when visiting any culture). Even if you make a mistake, it will be a learning experience you'll remember for the rest of your life.

For the benefit of future readers wondering about Japanese cultural taboos, here are a few more:

- The four/death (四 and 死, respectively, both pronounced "shi") and nine/suffering (九 and 苦, respectively, both pronounced "ku") has been touched upon already. Only a big deal if you're bringing some kind of gift set from abroad (all sets I've ever seen sold in Japan avoid four and nine).
- No potted plants as a gift for someone recuperating. The roots of a potted plant are seen as a metaphor for the illness "having deep roots" and taking longer to recover. Cut flowers are appropriate.
- Wear sunglasses if you want, even though few other Japanese people do. Your eyes will thank you.

Incidentally, a gift that was always well-received was a book containing photos of my hometown. A picture is worth a thousand words, and even more when language is a barrier.

Enjoy your tour!
posted by armage at 10:04 PM on May 7, 2009

As bugbread says you'll stick out as a tourist no matter what you wear. However, I think that wearing jeans and a button-down shirt (men) or a sundress (women) does have a purpose. It makes it easier to find a Japanese willing to help if you need it (willing helpers are not always easy to find). This might be truer outside Tokyo. It just can't hurt to dress more formally than you would in the US. That goes for traveling just about anywhere in the world I think.

A couple of more chopstick tips: don't stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice or food. That is how food is offered to the dead.

Before you take the food from a shared plate using chopsticks, turn the chopsticks upside down and grab the food using the end that hasn't been in your mouth. Then turn them around again to put food in mouth. That's how I was taught to behave in Kansai, culturally more conservative than Tokyo. Again, it's not really expected, but once you're used to it seeing its omission is gross, like the nose blowing etiquette.

Women: don't take the hot towel they give you at the table in restaurants and rub your face with it. Men: go ahead, it'll make you look like an oyaji (old geezer) but that's ok.

Women in public restrooms constantly flush while they pee or they press a button that emits music or white noise. While peeing. That's what all the flushing is about.

As a former folklore student (民俗学, not 民族学), it is true that 4 and 9 connote death and suffering, But no one's going to expect you to know that; it's just a factoid that gets repeated because its interesting. Same with admiring items in a home and discovering they've been given to you as gifts. I've heard these stories for years, but I have never heard first-hand real-life misunderstandings based on either custom. This is not to say that they do not happen, but that when they do they are extraordinary events and therefore amplified. After all they make a great story. Both customs sound like the kind of misunderstanding common in the 1960s and 1970s, before the influx of Western young people into the country. (and likely to appear in textbooks because many people of that generation write language textbooks)

Finally, treat Japanese homeless with the same kindness, if not more, elsewhere. Yes, Japan has many, many homeless people (Sexual assault too, but that's another story). The homeless, mainly men, are terribly stigmatized and do not receive much compassion from citizens or the state. The bar to obtaining housing for poor men is very high, so even working poor single men find themselves without an address. Be kind to these people.

If giving money seems awkward to you, buy a cold drink at a ubiquitous vending machine and leave it for the person. It's a gesture that's appreciated.
posted by vincele at 7:37 AM on May 8, 2009

correction: treat Japanese homeless with the same kindness, if not more, than you would treat homeless people elsewhere.
posted by vincele at 7:39 AM on May 8, 2009

« Older How do I handle this very unorthodox relationship?   |   How to get started in electronic music production... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.