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Saturday, May 3, 2003


Tit for tat in the game of Japanese gift-giving

"Beware of Japanese bearing gifts!"

These words were twitched to me at a reception years ago when I first arrived in Japan.

The twitcher was a foreign housewife who gripped my arm with fingernails just long enough to dig through flesh into bone. Her eyes shimmered with a glazed mix of soft concern and hard liquor.

"Because," she added, "you always have to give something back!"

She next blinked out a tense tale of trading gifts with her neighbors and the business connections of her Japanese husband. The image she presented was like that of gunslingers, fanning away not with red-hot pistols but rather with ribbons and bows and gift certificates -- battles she and her hubby could never win.

"We give, they give, we give, they give. It never stops! The only end in sight is in our bank account!"

Then she belched on me -- a gift I did not return.

Instead, I presented her to a nearby acquaintance, then crept quickly away, having bestowed my own Trojan horse of sorts -- one that had been sipping its barley rather than feeding upon it.

Everyone knows the Japanese give gifts. They give freely and they give lavishly. In fact, one might say the entire engine of Japanese harmony is greased by frequent and fabulous gift-giving.

Witness the envelopes of money that often travel hand-in-hand with construction bids, the handsome bribes that fuel politicians from one scandal to the next, and those little extra cases of beer, baskets of fruit or canned hams that go to doctors or teachers for services rendered -- or services yet to come -- not to mention the endless spray of souvenirs and goodies aimed at keeping old relationships fresh.

The whole Japanese nation seems to be run on perks, with the biggest winner being the retail industry.

And perhaps the basic spirit behind this is not bad. That being that the Japanese are generous people.

Many a foreign guest has been overwhelmed by this generosity -- often to the point of guilt.

Story one: A high school exchange girl once fawned over a kimono she saw in a shop window.

"It was beautiful," she said. "The only thing that could make me turn my head was the line of zeroes on the price tag."

Yet, the next day the girl's home-stay mother handed her a gift-wrapped box containing you-know-what.

Story two: This time an exchange boy made a casual comment about a certain samurai sword he had seen.

"Later, I learned not to say such things," he told me. "For like that sword, anything in which I showed interest, my host family usually bought."

Yet when foreigners offer horror accounts of gift-giving, splashy shows of hospitality are not what they mean. Instead, they mean either gifts with strings attached . . .

"Well," says a friend, "This colleague who had never even spoken to me before takes me out to this ritzy restaurant where we eat like kings. So when he asks me to check his doctoral thesis, how could I refuse?"

"Great," said the colleague, "The shippers will deliver the first 2 trillion pages in the morning."

. . . Or they mean "dueling" gift-givers, the kind that refuse to be outdone.

With every gift received, such people up the ante and give something back of even higher value. Either the receiver raises the stakes or lives under the gift-giver's debt.

Through the years, I have heard many foreign women -- especially wives -- remark on their dread of getting gifts. Unsure expectations and high costs result in frustrations that a wife in a new culture does not need.

"Not only that," says a housewife with some years in Japan, "I find I can never give anything. Whenever I try, I get something back."

I admit that as a foreign male I have not encountered such problems.

Oh, I notice that now and then our neighbor will drop off a box of "mikan." Beyond that, it seems I don't receive too much, and when I do I'm pretty happy about it. Never do I feel pressure to give something back.

"So," I ask my wife. "Do you think this could be a kind of boy/girl thing?"

"Perhaps," she says. "Or perhaps you're just an insensitive lout."

Hmm. This might explain why I only get mikan -- though upon second thought, I sometimes also get tissue packets at the station.

"Are you telling me," I say back, "that by not giving I have placed myself outside the Japanese gift game? That in order to get more, I have to give more?"

When she doesn't offer a response, I decide it must be up to me to give something first. So I pinch her.

She scoots away, but still answers.

"There's always a reason for a gift, and that necessitates reciprocation. More than this, not reciprocating is like not returning a bow or a smile. It marks you as a cretin."

I smile at this. She gives me a look.

"I give things sometimes!"

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do."

We thus trade words back and forth until, like a veteran gift-giver, I up the ante.

"Why, I've given you and this country the best years of my life! What do I get in return?"

Without hesitation, she hands me a mikan.

Fortunately we louts are easy to please. I appreciate vitamin C anytime.

But she's not done.

"I've given you my best years too!"

So it's a square deal -- or perhaps one that I've gotten the better of.

The feeling does not wane even when she reciprocates further, edges romantically close, and almost tenderly . . .

Returns my pinch.

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