Japan has elaborate customs for giving gifts. Like other customs, non-Japanese are not expected to follow them exactly, but the more you can observe their spirit, the better.
When people have been traveling, they are expected to bring back treats for their families, friends and co-workers. This custom dates from the Edo period, when villagers would pool funds to send a few people on pilgrimages. The lucky ones expressed thanks by bringing back treats for those who remained behind.
Gifts of food are the most appropriate, and the best choice will be a treat from your home area. Thus, Belgians could bring Belgian chocolates while an American would want to bring an American specialty, such as See’s Chocolates for Californians or pecan clusters for Georgians.
Chocolates, cookies, nuts, and dried fruit are all good choices. The key is for the gift to be easy to share among a group of people. Group gifts fit into the team orientation, and are also handy because it’s often unclear exactly how many people will be part of the team you’ll be meeting — in addition to the main person you have contacted, there could be several others working in the background.
The one case when an individual gift would be appropriate is for someone who has helped you personally or developed a particularly strong relationship with you. In that case, the gift should be more specific to the person’s tastes, perhaps related to their hobby or other interest. A baseball cap or football jersey from your home team might please a sports fan. Such gifts should be delivered in private, and one would still give a group gift as well.
Japanese business etiquette training and seminars are a specialty of Japan Intercultural Consulting. Please contact us for more information on how we can help you prepare for successful interactions with Japanese clients, customers, and business partners.