Dos and Don’ts: Gift Giving and Reciprocation Custom in Japan

  • In Japan, gift giving is often incorporated with different situations. Whether it be for a wedding, a child’s birth, or even confinement in a hospital, you will receive gifts from your Japanese family or friends. So in Japan, when you receive a gift, it is important to reciprocate the act to express your gratitude to the person who gave you the gift.

    This kind of gift giving and expression of gratitude has been taught to the Japanese starting from a young age and the act has been kept for many years. For people who haven’t lived in Japan, this may be quite a different custom from your country.

    The Mindset

    In Japan in order to express the feeling of gratitude, words or thank you is important but there is the thought of returning an appropriate gift for what we receive. With this kind of act, the people involved creates an equal relation where the person who receives something, in order to keep a good relationship with the giver will return something to balance it. Returning a gift is quite a pressure for some too because returning a gift less than half the value of what you receive may give off a bad impression instead.


    Superstitions are also considered when giving a gift and returning them. For example, returning a handkerchief as a gift is rude or impolite as it resembles crying.

    Scissors should never be given as a wedding gift because it portrays bad fortune to the event. For a funeral, teas would be an appropriate gift as it sends a feeling of wanting to remember and talk about the deceased over a cup of tea and good memories.

    Packing or Wrapping

    In Japan, it is traditional to give or return a gift to someone by wrapping it in a sheet of kakegami or noshigami. The color and types of knots for the mizuhiki strings change according to the occasion. A bowknot is used for occasions that are repeated like birthdays or starting school, while musubi-giri knots are only used for occasions that should happen just once like weddings and funerals. Red and white knots are only used for celebratory occasions.

    There is a deep thought in wanting to express gratitude in Japan and sometimes it may seem like a duty or obligation instead of a custom. But this is actually a way to strengthen the relationship between people in Japan. This is one part of Japan that not many foreigners are able to experience if they don’t live in the country.