Japan is a society in which a great deal of weight is placed upon the practice of gift exchange. Esoteric and complex, externals to the system may only scratch the surface in understanding the minutiae of detail and consideration that goes into the ceremonial practice: the intricate wrapping for example, or the colours and motifs used. What these mean, however, and the implications reciprocity in gift exchange has on social interaction, consumption and the power of obligation can seem a nebulous web layered with curiosity and contradiction.
One of the biggest reasons gift exchange occurs in Japanese culture, is the belief that positive fortune may be transferred from donor to donee. At moments of illness or bad fortune, individuals are treated with kindness and gifts from benefactors — those whom they have exchanged gifts in the past, often neighbours, who in turn might expect the same should they suffer similar fate. Most often this is food prepared by the donor: “By consuming food from families in which no one was suffering from the disease, one could absorb magical power from these families to help cure the disease” (Befu, 1968: 448) The hope is that the acquisition of such gifts will pass on an amount of positive energy to the recipient, good health to heal illness, or good luck for those who have suffered pitfalls of life.
Often gifts, especially those received in a furoshiki, are returned with smaller, token gifts, acting as a receipt so as to acknowledge the giver’s kindness and their promise of repayment in the future. (Hendry, 1993: 32-35) Lebra calls this immediate repayment, in that it affirms the social tie between the participants, and ensures the cycle of reciprocity’s continuation; this will be considered later in greater detail. (1976: 99-101) On the other hand, a person who is ill would not immediately produce a token gift, for fear of ‘polluting’ the recipient; instead one might invite all patrons-of-good-health to eat together, upon recovery. This too is considered immediate repayment by Lebra (1976: 99-101) in that it returns good health to benefactors, at the earliest opportunity.
The Japanese are very much concerned with beginnings, middles and ends. Considerable celebration is given for the turning of years in Japan, where substantial festival is dedicated to both New Year (Oseibo) and Midsummer (Ochugen). These are times when “half-yearly bonuses are paid and when nation-wide boom in gift-giving occurs.” (Clammer, 1997: 78) Cards are sent before new year in order to reaffirm social ties for the next year. Parties are also thrown and gifts exchanged amongst those closer acquainted, in thanks and celebration for the previous year and also in hope of maintaining social ties. Furthermore, it is “practice for shops… to present towels to their customers… at New Year, or simply in recognition of a substantial purchase” (Hendry, 1993: 28), whereby a shopkeeper would hope to retain an individual or family’s custom for the new year.
Gifts are of course given for pregnancy, at baby showers (the name and social gathering of which is a American import) and the post-birth ceremony: Miyamairi, following a period of isolation, a child is welcomed into society. Members of a community convene at the local shrine and perform praying and candle lighting for the baby, in order to invoke the protection of the local deity for the child. “Sake and rice are passed around as an offering” (Hendry, 1981: 202) During the process, all the participants must share the sake and rice offered to the deity, thereafter tying together the group of people in the experience: in celebration of the new life. Even the baby is symbolically offered this sake, when the mother must thrice place a sake-dipped finger on the baby’s lips.
Afterwards, “Cakes are taken to the households of the relatives and neighbours as a gift from the baby.” (Hendry, 1981: 202) Through the Miyamairi a social group is able to formally recognise and welcome new members. Likewise, it is customary for individuals and families moving into a new neighbourhood to knock on their neighbours’ doors to offer a symbolic gift: “presenting towels to one’s new neighbours… make an unspecified, formalized [sic] request for benevolence.” (Hendry, 1993: 28) In offering symbolic gifts to the neighbours, assimilation into their community is ensured and becomes a participant in social tradition.
Weddings in Japan are an intermediate stage in the life cycle that exemplify the links between gift exchange and ceremonial practise. As a social event it requires the participation of numerous individuals: family, friends and members of the community. Gifts are given to the betrothed couple, and in return the guests are treated to food and entertainment. Of course weddings also serve as displays of one’s status, and the act of giving is by no means limited to the guest’s gifts for the bride and groom: “the guests will take home gifts… possibly cakes…” (Hendry, 1993: 60) Which is a presentation of hospitality that not only nurtures social relations, but also creates an image of security and prosperity: “…the wedding feast, trousseau and gifts provide evidence that [the couple] can or cannot maintain or improve [their] social standing in the community.” (Hendry, 1981: 191) As a result, every participant is involved in an intricate system of exchanges, lying beneath a surface layer of enjoyment and emotional denouement.
Specific elements of a ceremony can also tell us a lot about the sentiments of a culture. For example, the attire of a bride, which Hendry compares to the wrapping of a gift. An exaggeration of this is seen in the formal garment: Junihitoe, a 12 layered dress worn by a Heian lady of court. Brides now change into many different outfits over the course of a wedding, most commonly from the an elaborate outer kimono for the main traditional ceremony, and disrobing into more comfortable (often ‘Western’ dress) for the celebration afterwards. (Hendry, 1993: 75) This can be seen as a process of unwrapping oneself (Hendry, 1993: 75) as one becomes more familiar, or more personal with one’s guests. Similarly, “close friends using little more than that necessary to enclose the object… suitable to the social occasion.” (Hendry, 1993: 39) Clearly, the wrappingof gifts and people are comparable: they both formalise situations, and present a series of culturally recognised mores of obligation. The lack of wrapping can show a degree of personal affection that strips or ‘unwraps’ gifts and events, relinquishing obligation replacing it with the more personal.
In regards to funerals, gifts of fruit or flowers (associated with life but ultimately perishable) are customary: wrapped in black paper, without the noshi symbol associated with celebration. The wrapping serves as a protective film: “isolating the clean from the unclean… purity and pollution.” (Hendry, 1993: 22). “It is [also] customary to bring ‘incense money,” a practise which similarly pays respects but also contributes towards funeral payments. (Kawano, 2004: 1) Likewise “helpers who make coffin are fed… bring a measure of rice to the bereaved family as part payment…”. Such actions serve to relieve the mourning family of work, thereby fulfilling the social obligation of neighbourlyties. It is clear that elaborate exchange of gifts, commodities and services occur even at ceremonies of the gravest sadness.
Travel is another situation defined by beginnings and endings. When embarking on a journey, it is not uncommon for significant gifts of money to be donated by one’s family, friends and other acquaintances. Typically, travellers are expected to spend a portion of this money on a gift for the donee, to be given upon return: Omiyage. (Hendry, 1993) Omiyage can clearly be seen as an institution of Japanese behaviour: “half their luggage might be filled with… trinkets” (Hendry, 1993) or the fact that: “Japanese honeymooners… are estimated to spend… 50 per cent of their brief holidays shopping” (Clammer, 1997: 136). There is immense social expectation weighing down on holidaymakers to fulfil their obligation to return the money contributed, with gifts.
However, it has also been suggested that there is ceremonial relevance attributed to Omiyage for the purpose of transference. These souvenirs are “regarded as carrying some power of the divinity… protection or aid,” and all enjoyment and spiritual accomplishment achieved by the traveller might also be shared by those who stayed at home through the gift received. They provide a spiritual requirement for both the travellers and those left behind.
However, it is important to note that “travellers will probably bring something back for all their close relatives and associates regardless of whether they have received such a sum.” (Hendry, 1993: 36) Again, Hendry would remark that the more ‘unwrapped’ a situation, the more personal the context and relationship. Participants can chose to bestow presents on those they love as an act of kindness, likewise fulfilling an emotional connection of togetherness.
Finally, one must consider processes of reciprocity, that is obligation and indebtedness. It can be concluded that gift exchange in Japan is so institutionalised because of these two innate feelings: “gifts are very closely related to obligations in Japan.” (Hendry, 1999: 85) If the Japanese mind is motivated to fulfil obligation, then the post-Miyamairi custom of cake distribution, can be considered the first act that ties an individual into a system of gift exchange and obligation in the community. By giving cakes, a baby is therefore owed favour, which throughout his or her lifetime will undoubtedly by reversed several times over.
Perfect Balance on the other hand, is actually a highly undesirable state to be in. While one’s obligation might then be negated, so is the gift-partner’s, thus in times of trouble there is no obligation for either to help the other. In maintenance “written records are kept of the network of exchanges, whether they are of work of or goods,” (Benedict, 1946) in effort to ensure that too cheap a gift, nor too large a gift, nor even equal gifts are returned: an exacting science. One must also calculate a means by which relations can be retained, and help will both be on offer and required of you.
For example, Oseibo it has formerly been expected that at least some of one’s bonus be spent on one’s boss, for their kind treatment, an immediate repayment of the bonus received for work, or else large gifts are given “to those who have done you favours, to those from whom you hope to receive favours, to bosses and to one’s children’s schoolteachers.” (Clammer, 1997: 78). Hendry further remarks from personal experience of her son: “If the school… gave him gifts, he would behave better in return.” (Hendry, 1999: 85) Mauss actually remarks this to be a universal of gift giving: “the present generously given even when… there is only a polite fiction, formalism, and the social deceit, and when really there is obligation and economic self-interest.” (Mauss [Tr. Halls], 1990) Consequently, proffering of unexpectedly large gifts can place a burden on the recipient, (though at times it may be rejected) that can effectively bribe and often win loyalty or social leverage, especially when hard to repay.
The entire process of gift giving can be intrinsically paralleled with the process of ceremony. Ceremonies not only act as an opportunity for gift exchange to occur and for social obligations to be repaid, but also as displays themselves in their own right, presentations of hospitality and spectacle. Births, Birthdays, Weddings, Celebrations for good fortune, even Funerals; all these are accompanied with social gatherings, all of which involve the invited to bring gifts, and the hosts to offer food, hospitality and some form of ritual presentation in return. Ceremonies serve as an outlet for reciprocities to be repaid, and “relationships to be reconfirmed” (Hendry, 1987: 224). They act as a platform by which gift exchange to occur, and as a result for reciprocal obligations be reversed or maintained.
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Clammer, J. (1997). Contemporary Urban Japan: A Sociology of Consumption. First Edition: Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
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Hendry, J. (1993). Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan and Other Societies. First Edition: New York: Oxford University Press.
Hendry, J. (1999). An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field. First Edition: London: Routledge.
Kawano, S. (Summer, 2004). Scattering Ashes of the Family Dead: Memorial Activity among the Bereaved in Contemporary Japan. Ethnology, Vol. 43, No. 3: pg. 233-248: University of Pittsburgh – Of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education.
Lebra, T. S. (1976). Japanese Patterns of Behaviour. First Edition: The University Press of Hawaii.
Mauss, M. (1970). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by W.D. Halls (1990). Reprint: Abingdon: Routledge: (2005).