Omiyage Gifting: A Social Obligation in Japan?

  • After returning from a vacation, you may have brought some souvenirs or gifts back for friends or yourselves; it’s natural to think that this is a wholly voluntary act and usually given only to people who you are close to or who you are in good terms with. But who would have thought that NOT doing so would be deemed rude in Japan? The practice of bringing souvenirs or gifts, called omiyage, back from a vacation is a social obligation, especially in an office. Regardless of how short or nearby the vacation was, omiyage are always expected upon one’s return. Expect puzzled “Did he really go on a holiday?” facial expressions, or dirty “What a scrooge” looks to be thrown in your direction every few minutes if you fail to comply.

    So what exactly is Omiyage?

    Omiyage お土産 translates to “local product”, and should be made in the town or prefecture that it is representative of. Think artisan blown glassware from Venice, the Blue Eye from Turkey, Tillamook cheese from Oregon, or the Merlion from Singapore. Some Japanese examples are apples from Aomori and potatoes from Hokkaido (both of which come in various snack forms), or the adorable Kumamon from Kumamoto. The Japanese are quite particular and strict about bringing back local specialties, usually food, as gifts for colleagues and friends. That said, doing this does help to spread the word, be it domestically or internationally, about each prefecture’s unique produce. Hello honey castella cakes from Yokohama, prawn senbei rice crackers from Mie, and chinsuko shortbread cookies from Okinawa! Given the relatively low profile of some prefectures, this mobility of travel could be properly leveraged to give others a taste of local culture and flavor.

    Omiyage specialty stores, or senmonten 専門店 usually have rows upon rows of beautifully wrapped boxes, normally along with a display mold of the interior. Some stores even provide samples. Individually wrapped and neatly arranged in the box, the snacks are packaged so that they still looking presentable after handing them out. They somehow also make people feel entitled to take only one, and hence automatically reduce the risk of missing out due to “fastest fingers first” (and ward off those thick-skinned hoverers with quick reflexes, me included).

    Overseas Omiyage

    When bringing omiyage back from other countries where the snacker experience is not quite so meticulous, take extra care in ensuring that the snacks are still wrapped. No one wants to eat from or stick their hand in a bowl that would be set out for days! If not, keyrings, magnets or other little trinkets would suffice. I personally prefer receiving these as it forms a memory about the giver, and I get to ask about the history behind it too. Omiyage tend to be gifted to others, and souvenirs as keepsakes and a memory to hold for oneself. So if you ever visit Japanese friends, do bring some omiyage that represents wherever you come from (and also prepare a story about where/how/when/why it came about)!

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