“Feel My Joy!” and Other Intentions Behind Japanese Omiyage
Ever heard of omiyage?
Well, when a Japanese person tells you that it means “souvenir,” you’ll probably be picturing a keychain or a shot glass, right?
Oh, how this translation misguides you.
If you’re headed to Japan, or you’re one of the lucky sons-of-guns who lives there now, you’re going to want a much better explanation than that!
Learning Japanese is not only about grammar and vocabulary. Immersion in the culture is a major indicator of your all-around awesomeness.
In this post we’ll explore the wonderful world of the Japanese gift-giving culture. Here we’ll walk you through a rough guideline of what omiyage is, what to buy and how to adhere to a little omiyage etiquette.
Leave those grammar books aside for a moment and keep reading. Seriously now.
“Feel My Joy!” and Other Intentions Behind Japanese Omiyage
So, What Is Omiyage?
So much of omiyage is lost in the translation “souvenir”—it represents a very interesting segment of Japanese culture itself. All right, so what is it?
The short answer:
It’s most commonly in the form of carefully-wrapped boxes of local goods (usually food), found in abundance in every tourist shop, airport and train station. And most importantly, they’re meant to be brought back from literally any trip you’ve taken away from home.
From Tokyo Banana to an odd concoction from Okinawa (which I dare you to look up for yourself), omiyage comes from a long tradition of bringing your friends, family and coworkers some of the goodness that you experienced elsewhere while they were holding down the fort.
The long answer:
Because of the group consciousness and “communal society” that Japan is run on, every person is constantly thinking about the feelings of others out of respect and empathy. It generally keeps things running smoothly.
So what you need to know is that omiyage is a really easy way to show gratitude or good intentions to someone with whom you’ve entered into a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s often used for sending one or more of these four messages:
1. We’ve just met and I’d like to show you I’m psyched about it.
2. In exchange for some inconvenience I’m causing you, here’s something to show my gratitude.
3. You’ve done something for me in the past, and here’s my お返し（おかえし）or, something I’m doing in return. (This is more or less a constant cycle throughout your relationship.)
4. I want you to be able to live vicariously through me and my awesome trip that you didn’t get to experience, as you’ve done for me before.
Particularly for number 4, a lot of the time an employee will buy omiyage for their coworkers while thinking: “Well, I took a day off, so it’s only fair to bring them something to say thanks for their support in my place.”
Which is a very nice thought, wouldn’t you say?
So it’s a thoughtful gift! That’s nice.
Omiyage aren’t necessarily thoughtful gifts
Unlike the usual souvenir you buy for yourself or for family and friends, Japanese omiyage is not necessarily purchased by choice.
The majority of the time, it’s expected.
And it’s as integral to Japanese culture (notably office culture) as 飲み会（のみかい – drinking parties) and カラオケ（からおけ – karaoke).
Went abroad for a business trip? Buy omiyage.
Went to the next city for a meeting? Buy omiyage.
Went to an 温泉（おんせん – hot spring) for a day trip…?
If you want to start off or keep existing good relations between yourself and your coworkers, friends, and acquaintances, you’d better pick up one of these smooth, beautifully simple and elegant little boxes full of treats!
Now, omiyage culture—here we come!
Culture is tied into language, so learning all about omiyage and other Japanese customs and traditions will help you become fluent.
Your Complete Guide to Buying Omiyage
What makes it genuine omiyage?
Basically, if you’re agonizing over which of the pretty, colorful, finely-wrapped boxes to pick up, remember that it should follow some pretty specific criteria:
1. It’s an obvious representation of the place you traveled to: The literal translation of お土産（おみやげ) is something like “local product,” which you are guaranteed to find in whatever prefecture you’re swept into. Each place has some kind of famous delight for you to indulge in…and it should be very obvious where that was. If it’s within Japan, everyone already kind of knows which omiyage is famous where. However, if you’re coming in from another country, you might want your omiyage to visually represent where you’re from.
2. It’s easily shareable: Oh, these delicious treats? Not for you. For your coworkers, classmates, friends and host family! And they’re going to accept whatever you bring them because they’re just too darn polite to turn their noses up. Try to stay away from awkward serving situations by grabbing a box of individually wrapped treats that people can easily come by, pick up and enjoy, 遠慮なく（えんりょなく – without holding back)!
3. There’s a lot of it: An alarming aspect that you’ll certainly run into is the sheer volume that some people buy. One box of お煎餅 (おせんべい – rice crackers)? A sweet thought, but if you’ve got 80 immediate coworkers….just one box isn’t going to cut it, my friend.
4. It’s a treat for the eyes as well: If you buy your omiyage in Japan, chances are the wrapping is already there—sleek and wonderful. Now, in the occasion you are returning to Japan from abroad, make the extra effort and wrap your omiyage. Or have someone wrap them for you—maybe the store where you bought them. I don’t know, just saying. Japanese are big on aesthetic and they’ll appreciate the gesture.
What are people going to like?
There’s nothing like busting out your omiyage and being answered with a genuine おー！that tells you just how awesome your choice was. In fact, a lot of the time when asked what their favorite part of omiyage culture is, Japanese folks will often say it’s “seeing the happy faces.”
So let’s take a look at some of the deliciousness you can get from within Japan:
Tokyo: 東京バナ奈 Tokyo Banana
These tasty treats are like a light, fluffy, banana twinkie. If you travel to Tokyo from anywhere else in Japan, it’s not too far-fetched that you’ll have a (close) friend asking hopefully 「東京バナナ？」（「とうきょうばなな？」)
Kyoto: 生八つ橋 Nama Yatsuhashi
Soft, refined and understated, just like Kyoto! These plush little triangles with various fillings might drive you to shamefully devour a few before you make it home.
Osaka: たこ焼き Takoyaki
Don’t go to Osaka without trying the takoyaki. And while these are perishable, you can opt for the more durable takoyaki senbei (rice crackers) instead!
Fukuoka: ひよこ饅頭 Hiyoko Manju
If you’re going to be in Fukuoka, might as well go for the absolute classic and grab some ひよこ, which are just about the most adorable omiyage you can find shaped like a baby chick. If not that, go for some Hakata Ramen. This is no Cup Noodle. The real deal in Fukuoka city (or Hakata) is a thick, fatty, incredibly satisfying soup made with pork bone that can be brought home in…well, Cup Noodle form. Hey, at least it’ll make the journey!
Hokkaido: 白い恋人 Shiroi Koibito
Here’s a white-chocolate cookie inspired by European tastes that you should definitely bring back to your buds. It translates as “white lover”…wherever your mind takes you on that.
A Glimpse at Omiyage Etiquette
Omiyage is not only about choosing the right gift. It is about presenting it in the proper manner as well.
That’s right—there’s a proper etiquette behind omiyage culture.
Don’t worry. Nothing too fancy. Just follow the three steps below and you’ll be an omiyage expert in no time!
1. Insist until they accept it
As we said, omiyage is an obligation. Japanese (be it family, friends or coworkers), are actually expecting some omiyage when you return from your trip as common courtesy.
That said, they are inclined to politely refuse.
Yeah, I know. But make no mistake—they do want it and they greatly appreciate the gesture, so keep on insisting until they accept it. Think of it as a little formality included in the omiyage tradition.
You offer, they decline, you insist, they accept.
2. Don’t be offended if it’s not opened right away
It’s not you, we promise. Chances are the omiyage is going to be put away and opened at a more convenient time. Just to avoid that whole awkwardness potential.
The thing to understand is that the purpose of the omiyage is not in the gift itself, but all the underlying notions covering the tradition. Just know that you are acknowledged and will be remembered the next time it’s your turn to receive omiyage. Kind of an exchange of mutual respect.
3. Don’t think you’re exempt!
It’s easy to think that because you’re a foreigner you’re excused from attending to this ancient ritual (ok, maybe not so ancient).
Not a great way to think.
It’s true that Japanese often assume that we just don’t get it—that omiyage isn’t something we would be familiar with. It’s a pretty subtle and complex deal!
But embracing this gesture will absolutely go the extra mile in your relationships. It is so worth it.
Buy that omiyage. Earn your respect. Appreciate your friends!
You’ll get major bonus points if you show up on your first day in Japan with something that represents your own culture…whether it really does or not.
To Gift or Not to Gift? There Is No Question
To gift! Playing the “stupid foreigner” card gets old pretty fast…
Since omiyage is a very important Japanese cultural custom, why wouldn’t you want to partake?
Traditions should be respected as, more often than not, they’ll tell you something vital about the people you’re interacting with. We want to understand each other right?
We are now citizens of a world striving to respect its differences by embracing its similarities. Huzzah!
So, wherever you are, bring some omiyage home. Spread the joy!
Oh, and a word of advice: Never bring licorice.
They just don’t dig it.
Thanasis Karavasilis is a writer and lover of stories who was educated to be a teacher of English. He spends his time between worlds and inside pages; written or otherwise. You can get a glimpse of his adventures somewhere inside his hideout.