Keeping Count

Last time I wrote about writing postcards (hagaki) as part of the way Japanese maintain relationships. Today, I want to mention another way that Japanese maintain relationships, which is through gift-giving.

Gift-giving is a major thing here. Obviously, housewarming gifts are necessary when you visit a home (fruit is your go-to gift), but there are also occasions for giving gifts like when you move into a new home/apartment. In this case, you’d give things like towel, or soap, etc.

Interestingly enough, unless you’re invited to a party or are a close friend, birthday gifts don’t seem to be that necessary. Wedding gifts are always cash– if you’re just a friend, that amount starts at $300 and goes up from there.

There’s also a season called “Natsu Chuu-gen”, which is when you send gifts to mostly your work relationships. They have whole catalogs that come out for this, where you can order and have your gift delivered. The deadline for Chuugen is July 15.

But in daily life, the Japanese like to keep their relationships “equal”. If you receive a gift, then you return a gift of around half the value. This is generally called “giri”, which means obligation.
Remember the hefty wedding gifts? Well, you usually leave the wedding with a really nice gift as a guest.

Even in simple things, they like to keep their obligations “equal” with people. For example, two of my kids went on a field trip where they dug up potatoes. I’m pretty sure they brought the whole field home with them. So I set aside what I could use and divided the rest among my neighbors for them to use.

The next day, I came home from an errand to find a bag of eggs hanging on my door handle. One of the neighbors had re-paid the gift to equal it out.

Other times I’ve lent a bowl to a friend, and without fail, it gets returned full of something else.

It gets tricky to remember to make sure that all equals out and to hope that I’m not either doing too much or too little. This also applies to actions as well, though that’s a little trickier.

One day though, I was flipping through the back of my personal calendar and found a handy… and scary… section for making sure everyone is keeping up with their “giri”.

When I saw it, I felt like things had just gotten real. To think my name might be on one of these lists and left wanting!!

So, how you use this:

On the left side, you enter the things you’ve received, when, from whom, their value and what item you gave in return.

On the right, you enter the things that you’ve given, when, to whom, their value and what you received in return.

I had no idea it could get this detailed– but the Japanese are very careful in relationship maintenance and expectations, so it didn’t completely surprise me.

Gifts can be a great opportunity. They must be done well and not too much or too little– and definitely not forgotten. But done too well, or too often– and I think it becomes a little bit of a hassle for them.

So, if your love language is gift-giving, Japan might be the country for you. And if not, well– this chart might be handy for you after all!

2 thoughts on “Keeping Count

  1. It must be a very foreign concept to the Japanese to find out that God loves to give good gifts…those that can never be repaid nor does he even expect to get anything in return!

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    1. Yes, that is definitely something– grace without obligation hard to understand. A lot of concepts of Christianity can be hard to understand in the cultural context, but God will speak through!

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