Gratitude is an emotion that is expressed universally. No matter where you are in the world, there are ways to express you are thankful for someone, whether it’s through word or deed. Some cultures create seasons to celebrate thankfulness; one example is Thanksgiving, while others use Christmas to give someone a nice gift to show their love.
Japan is a country known for being inclined to giving gifts. Even if the gift is small, it is seen as a thoughtful act. It is even a crucial business protocol to give gifts. The Japanese love receiving souvenirs, and even have it in their culture to return a gift with another gift (or a “thank you” gift), which is called o-kaeshi.
There are designated days and periods of time, or seasons, where it’s recommended (not necessarily mandatory) to give someone who has helped you throughout that year a gift. Those two periods are “Ochugen”, which occurs during summer (July and August), around the Obon Festival, and “Oseibo”, which occurs towards the end of the year. Both are almost the same; their only clear difference is from the dates they are celebrated.
What Is the Meaning of Oseibo?
If you feel indebted to anyone who did an important and kind deed for you that year, then Oseibo is the perfect opportunity to show you are grateful. Written in Japanese as “お歳暮”, the word “Seibo” translates to “year-end”, which is when the gifts are given. Oseibo is essentially a socially and culturally constructed time period at the end of the year when people are prompted to give gifts to each other as a sign of gratitude for something they did, or for their existence.
On What Date is Oseibo Celebrated?
The exact dates that one can present Oseibo is from December 1 until December 20. December 20 is usually the day when most exchanges are made. Anything given beyond those dates is no longer part of the season of Oseibo. Instead, gifts are given between the 26th of December and the 7th of January fall under “Onenga”, or “Nenga”, which are gifts given to celebrate the onset of the new year. “Nenga” is also the word used as a celebratory word to greet each other with during the New Year.
The History of Oseibo in Japan: Celebrating the Gift-Giving Season
Japan has always had a way with etiquette, and gift-giving, as well as practicing gratitude has been a staple in their culture. This can be seen explicitly in their culture – just like uttering “itadakimasu”, which has roots in gratefulness for having the food (however literally translated to something along the lines of “I humbly receive”.)
Oseibo, however, stems from the ancient custom of giving offerings to ancestors who have passed away by placing it by their graves. More specifically, it originates from the practice of giving a gift to the New Year’s god who is called “Toshigami”, which is presented to the head of the house. The tradition started during the early 1600’s.
There were certain gifts that were laid out in these offerings, such as sake, herring roe, salted salmon, and rice cakes, and these were made in preparation for such customs. Over time, this practice leaned more towards giving gifts to others. It was part of good manners to give these gifts during earlier times and was considered almost obligatory and is associated with something older generations do. In modern times, however, not everyone practices this custom and is simply seen as season you may opt or opt not to join.
Who Should Be Given Gifts During Oseibo?
You can give a gift to someone during Oseibo to anyone you feel you need to thank for a special deed they did for you. This can apply to almost any situation; both large and small-scale; whether the gift is for a doctor who saved your life, someone who introduced you to your soulmate, a boss at work who helped you grow as a person, a teacher who never gave up on you, a relative who let you live with them this year, or even simply one’s parents for being who they are. It’s a chance to show you’re grateful.
Kinds of Gifts to Give During Oseibo
If you want to practice Oseibo, the best kind of gift is something that you know the other person would enjoy; something simple yet specialized to fit his or her tastes. If it isn’t fit to match the taste of the recipient, it should at least be something special. The Japanese have a word that describes the kind of gift that you should give during this occasion, and it is called “Sanchokuhin”, or for long, “Sanchichokusouhin”. Sanchokuhin, directly translated, is a term for a product that is made directly by the producer – be it a factory, an artist, or a baker – sent straight to the recipient.
Following Sanchokuhin does not necessarily mean you have to write letters to a big chocolate brand, asking them to send the gift to the recipient themselves; it is more of a philosophy. The reason behind why this word exists is because, during Oseibo, it was popular to give what your town specialized in making; (artisanal products, usually) whether that specialty was a kind of fruit, cloth, or craft. The philosophy can also mean to give a meaningful gift, instead of buying something for the sake of finishing the obligation.
If the person you are gifting enjoys beer, then you may give him or her a case of a special brand that is made in your hometown. If you want to thank a child, you can give him or her some candy. Edibles are always welcome, too, especially if you’re gifting an entire family. Other examples of gift ideas to give during Oseibo are fruit presentations, special condiments, and seasoning, preserved fruit jams, - even detergent and soap make great gifts. You may also give edible products that can be cooked or used to celebrate the new year.
What to Avoid Giving
In general, it’s important not to give any item associated with lilies, camellias, and lotus blossoms, as these flowers are connected with death and funerals, as well as red-colored cards. Though this superstition is not as believed to be true today compared to earlier times, it’s best if you avoid giving things in numbers of nine or four – so don’t give four cans of jelly – give 3 or 5 instead.
How Much Should Be Spent During Oseibo?
You can guide your choice of how much to spend depending on the relationship you have with that person; how indebted you feel you are to them, and how much your budget allows you to give. Amounts spent in yen range anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000, but most gifts go for about 3,000 to 5,000 yen.
You may feel like you owe a larger gift to somebody who saved your life, so if you feel like it’s apt for you to give it, and you can afford it, an expensive luxury watch, leather bag, or even a car are grandiose examples of things you can give. As for someone who helped you change your tire when you got stranded on the highway, an example of a decent gift would be a basket of fruits, or a bouquet of the finest jams, jellies, and condiments you can procure from your area.
A Burden to Some
Though it may seem that Oseibo is all about showing your thankfulness for a deed (or several deeds), or the presence of someone, some find the occasion a nuisance or burden because some people don’t want to feel indebted back to the giver, nor do they want to be bothered to think about what to give. This especially goes for more expensive gifts that go beyond the 5,000-yen limit. Because of the many unspoken rules of courtesy, many people don’t practice Oseibo anymore.
For example, if you are much younger than the person you are gifting, it is considered rude to give an expensive present. At the same time, depending on what firm or company you work for, it is frowned upon to join practicing Oseibo. If you give your boss a present and your co-worker doesn’t (or if you give a better one), it might encourage favoritism.
If you are unsure about what to do during Oseibo, it’s best that you ask locals or a friend who understands your living and working arrangements for what you should do, and whom you may want to consider giving.
Tips to Handle the Season of Oseibo
Usually, there are websites online that make sure you have various options for any customer to choose from when Oseibo season comes along. For convenience, you may shop from these stores, but it’s always good to give it some extra effort and go for more personalized and artisanal products as gifts, or even make it yourself at home. If you’re in a hurry, there’s always the option of going to your nearest department store and looking for a package deal your recipient may like there.
It is extremely important that the gift should be wrapped properly – and there is a specific origami fold to add to a gift given for Oseibo. Gifts are also much more appreciated if they are a thoughtful surprise from observing what the recipient likes, and not directly asking the recipient what he or she wants.
Writing “Oseibo” in Kanji on the Noshi
A “noshi” – written in Japanese as “熨斗”, is a folded piece of origami that is considered ceremonial is somewhat like Origami Tsuki solely due to the ceremonial aspect. Because of this Japanese place careful and great meaning into the ancient art of origami, thus there are categories for them, and one of them is Origami Tsuki. Origami Tsuki, in English, is “certified”, so when diplomas are given for mastering something such as tea ceremonies or swordsmanship, it is folded in a special way to make sure that no one can replicate the certificate.
As for noshi, although it is somewhat associated, however different Origami Tsuki, it is ceremonial, and not a certificate – instead, it is a paper used to express good wishes. The noshi should be attached to the gift, around the upper-middle section, next to the symbol of the noshi should be the Kanji inscription of “Oseibo”. On the lower section is the name of the person giving the gift. You can tell which is upper and lower as the ribbon loops face north, while the ribbon ends face south.