Every winter, I make a 5,568 mile trek to Tokyo to visit friends and extended family. My most recent trip swirled with purikura booths, broken English, and crowded trains. As always, dinner meetings between my mother and her childhood friends from Nagoya peppered the visit; a routine rekindling of friendships that wouldn't take place if not for decades of shared experiences growing up in Nippon's manufacturing capital. But despite the familiarity and long-standing history between both parties, the encounters almost always follow a predictable pattern, one as tidy and unmistakably Japanese as the iconic vertical street signs that peek out from Tokyo's narrow facades.
Ask any Japanese native, and you will hear that gift-giving is a familiar and mandatory routine. In Japan, etiquette is taught like a second language, and attending a dinner reunion or visiting a home empty-handed is simply unacceptable. Fortunately for the baffled and bewildered gaijin, the process of exchanging omiyage can be broken down into three stages - each more comical and heartfelt than the last.
1. The Reveal
Unless you are meeting with someone senior to you, you generally wait until the very last moment to disclose the existence of your gift. Only once every plate has been emptied, the battle for the bill has come to a gory end, and the conversation has died down to a trivial trickle can each party place its unassuming department store bag on the table. And despite the societal expectations set for the meeting - remember, gifts are required - it is always polite to feign surprise. "What, for me? No! You didn't have to. This is so unnecessary. Unbelievable." So raise those eyebrows, let your mouth drop open in shock, and flutter your hands excitedly, because you had no idea this was coming.
Furthermore, first impressions really are everything - the packaging, deliberately overdone, often screams "effort" more than the gift itself. For being such an environmentally conscious people, the Japanese spare no trees when it comes to dressing up their omiyage. Often adorned with embossed stickers, colorful ribbons, and delicate paper, these books intend to be judged by their covers.
2. The Denial
Prior to opening, every gift comes with a gushing disclaimer. It is prudent to talk down your offering from every angle, making light of its monetary value and downplaying the hours you spent perusing aisles in search of the perfect present.
"Oh, this is so embarrassing. Trust me, I put minimal effort into this one - it's really nothing. Very cheap, please excuse me."
I will never forget watching my mother give her friend a beautiful, delicate pendant, one that ideally complemented the recipient's dainty features. I knew for a fact that it was the outcome of a tedious search, but her visage didn't reveal even a hint of pride in her find.
My mother went as far as to claim, "Oh, it's a bit hadena" - literally translating to "gaudy" or "flamboyant." I exhaled audibly in disbelief. I don't think I could have found a better gift if I had all the time in the world.
3. The Recognition
For the Japanese, gratitude is a battle of endurance. The first person that stops thanking the other is the unspoken loser in this cultural war. Flushed cheeks and reassuring waves of a hand accompany flurries of verbal appraisal. This appreciation later translates into incessant follow-up emails and an exchange of photos that not-so-subtly display the gift in use.
"It's fantastic. I absolutely love it - I'll never wear anything else."
It's no wonder that meticulous Japanese etiquette is the butt of many jokes and a source of amazement to the rest of the world. And even though I was raised under the ruthlessly considerate thumb of a Japanese mother, just a few rounds of witnessing this process had me exasperated - imagine how much time and effort the woman would save if she didn't adhere to these ingrained cultural expectations.
But as my vacation came to a close and I moved to purchase souvenirs for my own loved ones, I found myself deep in thought regarding the scenes of compassion I had observed over the past week and a half - as materialistic as presents may be, the exchanges themselves were driven by heartfelt generosity. I loved the people I was going home to, and they deserved nothing less than tokens reflecting that.
Maybe if everybody gave and received their gifts with as much thought and sincerity as the Japanese do, it would be a step towards becoming more considerate and loving human beings. Maybe we can all take a note from this comically kind, three-part ritual.