Omiyage: More Than Just a Souvenir in Japan

sduncan post on February 1st, 2013
Posted in Japan and Korea Tags: ,

​By Elizabeth Nordgren

Japan is a nation rich in cultural traditions and history. Proper etiquette is an important part of daily life, stemming from centuries-old societal customs. Part of this etiquette is reflected in the giving of gifts for certain events. A very common example is the giving of “omiyage”, which in English translates to “souvenir”. It is expected that when one goes on a trip or vacation that he or she will bring back souvenirs for their co-workers.
​This tradition dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) and, like many occasions of giving worldwide, involves religion. During an age when travel was time consuming and expensive, villages would pool money and appoint one or two people to make the journey to a famous shrine. These representatives would then return from their pilgrimage with a type of omiyage for everyone2. The gifts were usually charms or objects of religious significance relating to the area they had visited. It was thought the sacred experience they had had would be transferred to those who received the omiyage. Ensuring that the gift reflected the region visited was extremely important and is still part of the tradition today.

​When you go away on vacation, even for a weekend, it is expected that you will bring omiyage back for your co-workers. This is a way to keep the office harmony and show that the vacationer was thinking of his or her co-workers who were working hard in the office. Omiyage do not have be large or expensive gifts, but they are an example of “it’s the thought that counts” 1. Omiyage is usually edible, is wrapped nicely, and reflects the local specialities of the region visited. An average box of ten sweets can cost between 500 yen and 5000 yen ($6-$67 CAD) depending on the number of items, the wrapping, and where they were purchased1. There should be enough omiyage so that each co-worker receives at least one.

​My first exposure to this tradition of gift-giving was two years ago when I visited a friend, who was teaching English in Kobe, Japan. One of our weekend trips was to Miyajima to see the famous Itsukushima Shrine (known informally worldwide as the “shrine on the water”). While I was busy buying trinkets for friends and family, my friend was looking for a local edible speciality for her co-workers back in Kobe. She explained to me the cultural importance of buying omiyage as we wandered through the many tourist shops, trying to decide which treats looked the most appetizing. After much deliberation, we finally chose a beautifully wrapped box of maple cookies, a local specialty in
Miyajima.

​During my visit to Japan, I found there to be a wonderful balance between maintaining old customs and embracing contemporary values. It is impressive the Japanese have been able to hold on to so many of their historical traditions by adapting them to reflect today’s modern society. Omiyage is a perfect example of an ancient tradition that has changed over time to now be part of common business etiquette.

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