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Tips for businesswomen on Gift giving with Japan

from: Tracey Wilen

"Our company has a policy of not giving gifts to clients, and to discourage the the practice tells us we have to pay for any gifts ourselves. If you travel to Japan as often as I do, even small gifts can add up to quite a sum. I explained this to management, who now acknowledge that in Japan at least gift giving is an essential part of doing business. Even so, I don't take a gift on each trip. Instead, every once in a while, about twice a year or so, I take a small gift--some local art or foods--just to be polite, to balance the record, and because I genuinely like doing it. "(Palo Alto, California)

Giving gifts is an important aspect of Japanese culture that is often underestimated by the foreign businessperson. Gifts are given on every imaginable occasion in Japan. When Japanese travel from one part of their country to another, they are expected to carry gifts in both directions, first for the people they are going to visit and next for the people they left behind at home. In the summer and winter gift-giving seasons--occasions for giving gifts to those who helped you throughout the year--the department stores are stacked high with gift baskets and gift boxes of fruits, crackers, liquors, and chocolates.

Just as individuals exchange gifts in Japan, so do Japanese businesses, and on a far more lavish scale. A Japanese businessman would never dream of going to visit you or your company without bringing something in the way of a gift. The gift is not intended as a bribe to persuade you to do business with him, but as a sign of goodwill between your company and the Japanese company, regardless of the outcome of your mutual venture.

Initially, you may not want to participate in the gift-giving game. You may simply feel it is burdensome and unimportant. Or you may feel there's something unethical about the practice. But working with the Japanese you don't really have a choice. We strongly advise you to put aside your concerns and jump in head first. Appropriate, inexpensive items such as small gifts from your home state are best, since it is not the magnitude of the gift but the thought behind its selection and the ceremony of giving it that count. If you are unsure what to bring, you can choose a gift to be shared among your Japanese hosts, such as a box of chocolates or candies. Unless you specify otherwise, your gift will be opened in private. If you are the recipient, open your gift later and be sure to thank your hosts the next time you see them for their thoughtfulness. Send a thank-you note when you return home.



"After our counterparts had visited us a few times in the U.S. and had brought us many gifts, it was finally our turn to go to Japan. I advised my management that I felt responsible for bringing the gifts. We mutually agreed that I would be funded to bring five Tiffany sterling pens since they carried our company's logo, were light to carry, had a recognizable brand name, and were a "good enough" gift. We knew that five would not be enough, but we could not bring enough pens for everyone. The pens came in individual signature blue boxes with a white bow and no wrapping, and since I was running to catch a plane I was relieved they were prepackaged. Thinking I fully understood the protocol I handed the gifts in their little shopping bag to my Japanese contact at the firm we were visiting. I explained to him that there were only five small gifts and that he should pass them out as he felt appropriate. He was quite used to Western customs, and asked the executive staff to open their gifts in front of us. I never really understood how they decided who among the group of twenty-five got the pens.

Watching the face of the highest ranked Japanese I realized something was wrong. First he held the box in his hand and stared at the bow for a while. Then he pulled it off as if it was some foreign object. Next he turned the box over looking for tape so he could unwrap the box. Eventually he just flipped the top of the box open. He smiled when he saw what was inside. The unwrapped box and the big bow were so wrong and inexpensive that he was a tad confused about the formality and the value of the gift and therefore what we were trying to communicate by giving it. If I had realized how important this simple act was I would have stopped at the airport or hotel beforehand to have the items wrapped. I never told this to my team, who thought I had done so well and who sat beaming through the whole ceremony, delighted that someone knew the protocol. " (Washington, D.C.)


"It was my first trip to Japan. I was working for a large U.S. firm and was this Japanese firm's first businesswoman. I created a lot of worry and attention. We had some great dinner conversations. One of them was on traditional Japanese dress. To my delight, they described to me in great detail the various types of kimonos and costumes that Japanese women wear on various occasions. I learned a great deal and enjoyed the evening very much. The following evening I was thrown off guard when I was presented a kimono. In front of over thirty people I was asked to model the kimono. I was at a loss for words. I put on the kimono and was the center of conversation for thirty minutes. Finally I asked another woman to help me change out of it because I was so worried about spoiling the fabric that I couldn't relax. I am very proud to have received such a gift and enjoy having an authentic Japanese kimono very much. I am not sure I could advise anyone on the best way to accept this type of gift. It was completely unexpected, and while a lot more lavish than anything I was used to getting I didn't consider for a moment turning it down. Refusing the gift would have made things very difficult for my hosts." (San Francisco, California)


"I remember when a team from a large Japanese firm came to visit us in the U.S. We had formally awarded a project to them. I was apparently the first female they had ever worked with. Since they were a conservative company--probably the most formal and ritualistic I have met--they came in a big group with their top executives leading the way. They asked me to make some introductory remarks, so I got up and said a few words concerning our partnership and the new project. Then their head officer stood up and made a beautiful rehearsed speech in English. This was followed by a presentation of a Japanese doll in a glass case to me. The doll case had a nameplate on it engraved with both companies' names and the title of our joint project. This was one of the most creative and thoughtful gifts I have ever received. Since it was a corporate gift and not an individual gift, the doll was put in our company's front lobby case, where it adorns our entrance even today. " (Cupertino, California)


"I remember when I was running a project for my firm with our Japanese partners. "We don't do gift giving" was company policy. I was told. I was expected to discourage gifts, and even to give them back if they were too expensive. As a last resort, we would use any gifts as company raffle prizes. On one trip, in the evening, I, as the head of the team, was handed a bag with five small wrapped gifts. They said to me, "You, as the key executive and most sensitive member on the team, will know who on your staff should receive these gifts from us. We truly appreciate all the hard work you have done on our behalf for this very difficult project. We chose these gifts with you in mind, so we hope you will receive them." The gifts were expensive pearl necklaces. I discussed my dilemma with my management and was extremely happy to hear that the policy had been modified and that my team and I could keep the gifts. The thinking here was that our policy was reasonable in most cases but not appropriate for Japan."(Chicago, Illinois)


"I thought I did a good job this trip of not speaking admiringly of things, not asking culturally insensitive questions, and not staying too long. I was with a Japanese firm but in Taiwan, and we were there for only a very short visit--less than a half day. But on my way out when I thought I was in the clear, a beautiful Chinese fan surfaced from under the table. Gift giving is part of the culture no matter where you are and no matter how long you stay." (Seattle, Washington)


"I can't keep up with all the achievements and changes in the executive staff in Japan. There seem to be a lot of promotions and transfers these days, and each such announcement occasions a gift. Since my company's relationship with our Japanese partner is a long one, we discussed gift giving and agreed to stop the gifts unless one of us told the other it was a particularly important occasion. I think this was a relief for all parties concerned." (Boise, Idaho)


"This happened to someone else in my company, but the story is worth retelling as a cautionary tale. My company has been working with various Japanese companies for a long time, and you think we'd be immune to such mistakes. It was a joint research and development project. A team from our company went to visit the Japanese company. We took two boxes of T-shirts as gifts for the Japanese team. True to our casual company image, the T-shirts were just stuffed into boxes and then unceremoniously distributed--unwrapped--to all the Japanese after we arrived.

Three days into the business trip the senior person from my company was politely asked, "Did you only bring one T-shirt for each person?" An odd comment, we thought, but it was soon learned that since the shirts weren't wrapped the Japanese team thought they were a uniform and had begun dutifully wearing them each and every day. At night they were going home and laundering them we assume. Everyone in our company heard this story, and now we all wrap our gifts." (Fremont, California)


"I was invited for dinner to a Japanese private home. It was a wonderful evening, with good food and hospitality and conversation. During dinner, I couldn't help but notice a particular object on the wall. It was a doll made up entirely of folded paper and nicely framed. I must have kept looking at it. It was truly exquisite, and I really wanted to take a closer look. Well, soon the topic of conversation became the mounted paper doll. It turned out to be something the youngest girl of the family had made when she was only eleven.

In Japan, if you're a guest and show interest in something your host may feel obliged to give it to you. So you can guess how the evening ended. I left my host's home with the picture--only after many many attempts to refuse it. Finally I said I'd be honored to have it, and I promised to put it in my office and share it with as many people as I could.

When I got back home I put the piece in my office but still wondered what to do. Finally I decided I just had to return it. In my letter I explained that I had enjoyed the doll very much, as had the many others who had come to my office, but that I now wanted very much to return the doll to its rightful home. I said I had taken a picture of it and would be just as happy enjoying both the picture and the memories it stirred of the wonderful time I had spent as a guest in their home. " (San Francisco, California)

Do's and Don't's

Note: Gift-giving dos and don'ts in Japan are extensive. As a foreigner you need not to worry about all the subtleties. The following are the most important points.

* Don't bring gifts on your first trip to Japan if you are the customer, since you do not have a relationship established yet. As a sales representative you may wish to bring gifts if it is appropriate in your industry; choose modest gifts so as not to appear to be "buying" business.

* Bring brand-name company gifts--logoed pens, T-shirts, pins, golf balls, key rings, caps, tote-bags. Prestige brand names are: Bally, Marks and Spencer, Gucci, Harrods, Saks, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior. Good brand-name items are Hermes scarfs, Burberry umbrellas, Tiffany pens or key rings, Mont Blanc pens, Cross pens.

* Bring brand-name liquors (especially Scotch) and wines (but not jug wine).

* Bring regional specialties: syrups, wines, candies, cookies, breads, cakes, art pieces. Wall calendars and books from or about your area are also popular.

* Acceptable food items are dried fruits, nuts, beef jerky, packaged steaks, smoked turkey, caviar, smoked salmon packages, citrus fruits,

* Ideal corporate gifts--these can be more expensive than gifts to individuals--include local sculpture, an engraved and dated trophy cup, Waterford crystal, Lalique pieces, Steuben glass, Belleek china, Royal Doulton, a sterling silver engraved bowl, a picture in a large sterling silver frame, or an engraved paperweight. Any engraving should include the names of both companies and the date.

* Gifts appropriate for a home visit are a gourmet food package (local to your area), wine or liquor, and unusual candy assortments. Do not bring food to eat at the meal.

* Gifts appropriate when visiting a big group are large boxes of candy, beef jerky, key rings, sports caps, calendars, and T-shirts.

* Gifts for your subsidiary offices in Japan can be more westernized items such as U.S. Disneyland souvenirs, Australian Ugg boots, Texas Western wear, New Zealand sheepskin, Alaskan Indian crafts, French perfume, Belgium chocolates, or Canadian moccasins. Try to pick out something that shows your thoughtfulness and how well you know your associates, since you have to rely on them as your eyes and ears in Japan.

* Don't give clothing or personal items (although logoed T-shirts and sweatshirts are OK).

* Unwrapped gifts are not considered gifts.

* Good colors to wrap your gifts in are brown, maroon, blue, purple, gray, burgundy, and green.

* Don't wrap your gifts in elaborate colors such as red, orange, or gold. Don't use bows. Avoid the funeral colors of black and white.

* Don't bring flowers, since they are associated with romantic intentions.

* Don't bring gifts for your counterpart's family unless you know them very well.

* Don't give gifts in the quantity of either four or nine; these are unlucky numbers in Japan.

About the Author

Tracey Wilen is Author at http://www.globalwomen.biz/


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