Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Returning favors is indeed a thorny issue

I look out my door in both directions before I leave the house. Once I am out of the house, I go straight to where I am headed and come straight back. No stopping to talk to neighbors. I don't even answer the door anymore. I'm hiding — from gifts.

Recently, I've been over-gifted, to the point of no return.

Please, someone take me back home to my country where people accept favors with no intention of returning them, ever! Even if they say they will, they probably won't. Which is my excuse for not being good at returning favors. I try, oh how I try! I can see myself kowtowing to St. Peter at the gates of heaven, while exposing a hand-written note from my good neighbor saying, "Pete, she really did try."

"One good turn deserves another," we often say in the United States. The key word here is "deserves." You don't actually have to follow up on it! After all, we all deserve a lot more than we get, right? So, we're even.

But in Japan, accepting gifts is accepting responsibility. Give someone a gift for their wedding, and they'll give you a gift in return. If you receive a baby gift, you'll have to give some kind of gift back as a way of saying "Thanks for the gift." In Japan a gift is, essentially, an oxymoron.

It's no wonder foreigners aren't allowed to run for government offices in Japan. With the threat of favors not being returned, the system would collapse.

Even small favors are returned in Japan, which makes me think that people here must have incredibly long mental lists. They probably spend days poring over lists of who gets what. They could get part-time jobs helping Santa Claus. I mean, this is skilled labor!

The Japanese are quick to return favors and gifts. If not on the spot, they show up at your door with dinner a few hours later. After all, you wouldn't want to forget to return a favor, and thus run a favor deficit.

For those foreigners living in Japan with Japanese spouses, returning gifts and favors is easy. Just leave it to the Japanese spouse! But for those of us on our own, it can be a mysterious and scary world.

For example, sometimes when someone returns a favor, it's not a simple gift of thanks but a newly released, flavor enhanced, 20 percent more bonus gift. Other times, when I try to repay the Japanese for something they've done for me, they will not let me. But I still owe them. That's the part I can't figure out. It's Japanese math. No wonder they use the abacus here.

For the first five years or so in Japan, the gift-giving thing is great. You are still a guest in this country and largely on the receiving end.

But after you've been here a decade, two things happen. First, you get older, which means at some point you cross the line from kohai (underling — largely on the receiving side) to senpai (big daddy — more on the giving side). Second, you realize you were supposed to be returning all the favors and gifts you've accumulated over the past decade! Perhaps this is why many foreigners decide to leave Japan at the 10-year mark. They're pre-empting extradition.

One thing is for sure though. If you don't repay favors soon, they become a burden. It's like the mosquito that keeps buzzing in your ear, or the spot on the glass that just won't wipe clean. It's a thorn in your side.

As time goes on, that thorn in the side becomes a crown of thorns. More time passes, you still haven't returned those favors (and in the meantime have received more!), until finally you just want to impale yourself on the entire thorn tree. Get a good running start and jump, so the thorns go straight through you and stick out the other side of your body. And people will pass by and say, poor Bob, he should have learned how to use an abacus.

So I sat down the other day and decided to pay my favor deficit (only because I haven't found any thorn trees in Japan). I'd stick with just the big ones to start off with, the ones that could be solved with money.

These are the sums I came up with: Neighbor A gets ¥10,000 for the past two years because we've been using her storage shed (when she tries to refuse the money, I will not let her. When she tries to return the favor by buying me a new car, I will refuse!). Neighbor B gets ¥10,000 per year for taking care of the cat for the two months we're gone every year. We're 10 years in arrears already. We've used George's car every now and then over the past few weeks, so ¥5,000 to him just so there aren't any hard feelings.

After adding it all up, one thing became clear: I'd have to kill my cat, use my bedroom as storage, and not use a car from now on in order to afford to continue living.

I think I'll plant a thorn tree instead.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.