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Thursday, May 23, 2002

LIFELINES

When it comes to giving money, just go with the flow


In answer to the reader in Mita-ku enraged with having to 'pay out' money for so many of the activities that at home she takes as freely granted (parties, weddings, funerals), best remember perhaps that everything has its price.

Who would think of going to a party in any country without a bottle of wine or some edible offering? Funerals, well they are slightly different.

But every wedding requires a gift, and more-often-than not these days (in the U.S. and the U.K. at least) the invite comes complete with a list of items required for setting up home _ and more-often than not from a very expensive store.

The Japanese custom of handing over cash (suitably wrapped and covered so as not to embarrass the giver or the recipient) rather than giving gifts seems to date back a long way. It seems cold to many westerners, but Japanese don't see it like that, so maybe we should be a little more open.

The amount expected has changed quite a lot, in part due to inflation but also greediness.

I recall a TV program reporting on a mother tarting her kids up at New Year to tout them around the neighborhood in blatant expectation of 'toshidami' gifts. The look on her face later as she counted up the substantial loot was quite something.

My first wedding in Japan proved to be an expensive day. To begin with it was in Nagoya, with shinkansen tickets were required.

Since the bride was a colleague and a friend, I put 20,000 yen into the 'noshi-bukuro.' This special wrapping decorated with celebratory gold and red contains the envelope, the 'mizuhika,' for the money, and is generally available from stationers and convenience stores.

It was a bit too much, I now realize. Although, it was 1990, and the effects of the '89 economic bubble collapse had still not become apparent.

At the second wedding, a grandiose affair at the Okura Hotel a year or so later, I put in 10,000 yen only to learn later that most people had put in more (simply because it was the Okura!). Very confusing.

At the last occasion, just a few months ago, I think I got it right by giving 10,000 yen to two of my students tying the knot, but also by handing them a gift of private photographs framed to suit the decor of their new apartment.

Also I made a speech at the wedding banquet (a first), which was obviously priceless.

"Do It Right," a bilingual book that compares Japanese and American etiquette, by James M. Vardaman Jr and Michiko S. Vardaman, published by Kondansha, advises to give more the closer you are to the bride and groom.

"The degree of closeness is from brothers and sisters to relatives, coworkers and friends. A close friend probably uses 5% of his (or her) monthly salary as a standard, and if a couple attend together they give more," they say.

The same standards can be used for funeral, though in this instance, the amount handed over is called a "condolence gift."

The wrapping for this (edged in black and decorated in black and white and with its own envelope inside) is 'bushugi-bukuro.'

In both instances the money is used to defray expenses, and can really help families in difficult circumstances.

Richard, a reader in Ota-ku, Tokyo, writes that in his understanding, and experience "there are no hard and fast rules, only what is socially acceptable or done in a region or locale."

The minimum rate seems to be 10,000 yen. "If the person who is getting married or who has passed on is a relative, minimum nowadays is 50,000 yen, and if a very close relative, up to 100,000 yen."

At the place where Richard works, if 'koden' (an obligatory gift specific to funerals) is given to the family of a deceased colleague, the people on the same floor usually pool together, with younger personnel, giving 3-4,000 yen, and older personnel, 5-7,000 yen.

"This is decided as a group. The same goes for weddings." (A wedding gift is 'shugi.')

As for parties, for example, 'sobetsukai' (going away), the person leaving pays nothing and is the guest of everybody in that section."

For other parties like end-of-year 'bonenkai,' everybody chips in; it's understood that some people will drink heavily and others not.

If unsure, Richard says, "ask a friend, delicately of course."

Which brings us full-circle, I believe.

And onto a new question, this time from Stephen 'pen and pencil' Harris in Yokosuka.

"I want to join the computer age, but how and where to start? What model should I buy, what operating system should I use?

"Right now, I just want to e-mail, but maybe later write and edit documents.

"Do you know of a helpful book, an Idiot's Guide or Dummy series? Where can I get advice and help?"

E-mail: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp


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