If you have a Japanese friend or work with Japanese business people, you may know that they like to give gifts. Your Japanese customer may bring a box of biscuits when they visit your office or your Japanese colleagues may buy a souvenir for you when they have a long weekend away. While the Japanese give gifts to each other all the time, there are two major gift-giving occasions. These are the “Oseibo” winter gift and the “Ochugen” summer gift. The “Oseibo” winter gift is to say thank you to a person for their actions during the past year. This "Oseibo" gift is given in December. The custom originally came from giving gifts to gods in the beginning of the year. The "Ochugen" summer gift is similar to the "Oseibo" winter gift, except it is given in July or August.
In ancient Japan, people gave a variety of gifts to “yaoyorozunokami,” which literally means "eight million kami (gods)." This is known outside Japan as the Shinto belief system. Gifts to "yaoyorozunokami" are given by people who pray for good harvests, the safety of their family and a state of perfect health, as well as being a statement of appreciation for their lives. These gifts consist of rice, sake and foods like fish and vegetables. The gifts given for “Oseibo” or “Ochugen” still mainly consist of food and drink.
After being given to the gods, the gifts are then shared with people for them to eat or drink. In old Japan, people felt that they had an intimate relationship with the gods when they ate or drank together, just like when human beings who have a meal together feel their intimacy increase.
The Japanese always give a gift in return when they receive a gift. This can be confusing for foreigners. It is said that the idea of giving a gift in return came from people sharing parts of gifts that they gave to the gods. It became the custom of giving a gift in return.
Japanese often said “Tsumaranai mono desu ga…” when they give a present. This phrase literally means that it is trifling thing they are giving. Japanese would never say “I am going to give you such a wonderful gift!”
The author of “Bushido – The soul of Japan,” Inazō Nitobe, explained this phrase in his book. The phrase originally came from one’s humble and modest desire to say “I chose the gifts sincerely and thoughtfully for you, however, they look like a trifle in front of an admirable person like you.”
Even if a person gave a really great gift, they wouldn't say “This is a suitable gift for you," because it may harm the other person’s dignity. So they play down the gift’s value. Also there is concern about placing an obligation on the other person to give an equivalent gift in return. So there is an unspoken message that, “This is not a decent gift, so please don't feel you have to give a gift in return.”
These days, however, an understanding of the real meaning of “Tsumaranai mono” can be difficult for the younger generation. They may believe that someone is actually giving a trifling gift. So the phase is less used these days.
If you receive a gift from a Japanese and they use the phase “Tsumaranai mono desuga…,” this implies they are humble and they value and respect you.
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