If you live in Japan or are learning Japanese, I’m sure you must have heard of the word omiyage.
The fact that the word itself is so popular kind of emphasises its importance in Japanese culture. If a Japanese person explains to you that omiyage means souvenir, you probably think of key chains or post cards.
However, the Japanese have a different perspective towards “souvenir”, so different that omiyage has detached itself from the meaning of souvenir. In other words, omiyage represents a very interesting segment in Japanese culture and no, there is no direct word to word translation in English.
Here I will explain in detail on everything about omiyage and how to save you from all the confusion and frustration when adapting to a new unique culture like Japan.
What is omiyage?
It is not a souvenir, it’s an Omiyage!
A simple and short explanation would be, omiyage is a beautifully wrapped box of local goods, most of the time it’s a special sweet/snack that represents a place or country. It is sold in shops and train stations.
Most importantly, you’re supposed to bring omiyage from literally any trip away from home to give it to friends, family, co-workers, or your boss. Generally, it is to thank them for taking care of things while you were away.
What it really represents
Because of the group-oriented society in Japan, the Japanese prioritise group harmony over individuals. Everyone is constantly thinking about others’ feelings and thoughts and trying their best to please people around them out of respect and empathy.
So, omiyage is a way to show your gratitude and good intentions to someone with whom you have or are entering a mutually beneficial relationship. Here are the general representation of omiyage:
- In exchange for the troubles or inconvenience you have gone through while I was away, here is something to show my gratitude. (mostly to coworkers and boss)
- Thank you for inviting/having me (most of the time it’s when you’re invited for dinner or something in their house), here is something to show that I’m psyched to be here.
- You have helped me so much in the past and I finally have a chance to give you something nice in return. Here is something to show that I will never forget your help.
- I want you to be able to experience a bit of the awesome trip I have been to. Here is to show that wherever I am, I always think about you.
- This is the first time we met, I hope you will help me out or teach me things in the future. Here is to show my good intentions and hope to develop a good relationship with you.
Isn’t this so thoughtful how the Japanese never miss a chance to show gratitude? This is probably how they make things run smoothly in the workplace and friendship.
Or is it?
Thoughtful or not?
Think about when you go on a trip, you see something nice that reminds you of your friends, so you buy them that. The souvenir, then, will have a genuine meaning. It’s something you have chosen for them and you bought it because you do think of them.
Omiyage sometimes is not necessarily purchased by choice because most of the time, it is expected.
And because it’s expected, it feels forceful. It turns from a thoughtful gift into a mandatory gift.
It’s rude if you don’t bring back something for your coworkers or boss, even though you might have to pack a lot and are completely broke after your trip.
I think omiyage is like a currency, if you want people to help you when you are new to a place or to be nice, respect you and not bully you or look down on you, you have to pay them with omiyage and be very thoughtful about it.
What makes a good omiyage
If you want to establish or to keep good relationships with your coworkers, acquaintances or your partner’s family, you’d better learn how, when and what to buy them. Omiyage is often an elegant, beautifully wrapped box full of treats, but it’s not just as simple as that. Here’s how
1. It represents a region or place that you’ve traveled to
The literal meaning of omiyage (お土産) is a local specialty. You can find this in every shop or train station. Each Japanese prefecture has its own famous local delight and it will show on the package of the omiyage box. If it’s within Japan, everyone knows which prefecture is famous for what so you don’t have to worry, just buy the box that suits your eyes and budget.
If you are not sure what to buy in a specific prefecture, you can have a research on this website first to get the idea.
If the gift is from other countries, you might want to pick up something that obviously represents that country.
To avoid the awkward situation of trying to divide the gift, the best is to buy something that’s sharable like a box of crackers or cookies which everyone can just grab one or two.
If you’re buying for your 30 coworkers, make sure everyone can have at least one.
3. It looks good
The omiyage itself is more like a representation of your gratitude, not much about the taste. I personally think omiyage often doesn’t taste that good, it just looks good, that’s the point.
Every omiyage box in the shops is already wrapped beautifully, you just have to choose the one that matches the people you’re giving to.
I know it’s annoying how many things you need to remember about this gift giving culture. But another very important factor of omiyage is how you present it. Your manner has to be subtle and humble. That’s right, there is an etiquette behind the manner of giving omiyage. But don’t worry, it’s very simple, you just need to remember these few notes
1. Insist until they accept it
The Japanese are really indirect and shy. Even though they kind of expect your omiyage, they would still humbly refuse it. The important thing is you just gotta show them you are genuine. Don’t get it wrong, they do want it and they feel grateful for your gift but they are kind of obligated to decline at first just like you are obligated to give the omiyage.
You offer, they refuse, you insist, they accept.
2. Don’t play バカ外人 (stupid foreigner)
I used to think Japanese people wouldn’t expect omiyage from a foreigner like me, so I just didn’t bring any home. Sometimes, they would just be indirect about you being rude for not bringing omiyage but my boss once just told me on my face “Where is your omiyage?”
Yeah, it’s just not cute to play dumb all the time and it’s important to respect their culture. Also, you can earn others’ respect for your thoughtfulness. I’ve learned the lesson of not playing dumb, it’s just kinda stupid.
3. Don’t be offended if it’s not opened right away
This is another way of them being humble and not acting like they’re hungry for your gift. Again, omiyage is like a ritual, not really about gift giving but more about showing gratitude, so high chance your omiyage will be put away to be opened later. Just know that they acknowledge your thoughtfulness.
No, your presence alone is not a present
In other cultures, maybe the fact that you show up and visit someone already shows that you care about them and people just appreciate your time and effort coming. Mutual respect is earned as the relationship develops in other cultures, but in Japan, people want to establish that from the beginning by giving omiyage.
I know this tradition might be a bit too much, but it’s important to learn if you want to adapt in their culture and respect their ways of living.
Traditions should be respected and oftentimes, they teach you something valuable about the people you’re surrounded by. We want to understand and respect each other right? So why not learn and partake in this tradition.