Japan is an old country. It is an old country with a history of traditions, and there’s a lot of stuff that gets done here just because that’s the way it is and it’s proper and people have done it for centuries.
The social dance that is gift giving can be complicated. There are a lot of reasons to give people gifts, and they aren’t always birthdays. In the past it’s been customary to give gifts to your neighbors when you move into a new place (it’s the other way around in the states, which makes more sense to me), customary to have a gift prepared when making a formal visit to another person’s house, and also expected that when you travel somewhere, you will bring back something for all your coworkers and friends:
Omiyage (pronounced oh-mee-yah-gay) can be roughly translated as “souvenir”. I might call it “obligatory gift to those around you because you had the excitement of going to a different place for a bit while everyone else was stuck at work/home/school and would like a piece of your journey”. Of course, it’s not just this – the idea of omiyage is to bring back something “famous” from the place you visited and share it with the people around you.
Most omiyage I’ve received is in the form of food. When a student travels to another city in Japan or visits another country overseas, they typically bring back something small and foody. I often receive cookies, senbei (a kind of rice cracker), sweets, and sometimes small cakes that appear to have been bought at a department store from the visited city. Recently, I received this giant package of nori (made from seaweed, it’s what sushi is wrapped in) from a colleague who went to Korea. Apparently this nori is of a sweeter variety, and is thus “famous” in Korea.
I don’t even like nori. And I wonder every time I receive a “famous” food item exactly what that city’s definition of “famous” is. Shrimp flavored rice crackers and jelly candy aren’t what I would hope people would say about my city when asked about well-known things.
Every once in a while, however, you score something really nice. I have another colleague who is finishing his Master’s Thesis. His work requires he travel to some interesting locations around the world. He recently returned from Cambodia, and with him brought T-shirts for the men in our office and 100% handmade silk scarves for the women. Apparently these items are dirt cheap in Cambodia.
This concept of omiyage does extend to me – family will be receiving their share of goodies from Japan when I head back to the states for Christmas next month. Then, I’ll replace that space in my suitcase with treats from the US for all my people back here in the big T, hoping that my gifts from America will be adequately well-known and tasty.
America is famous for skittles, right?