Okurimono No Shukan (Japan)

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Okurimono no shûkan 🇯🇵
Japan map.png
Location: Japan
Definition: Socially required gift-giving practices in Japanese society
Keywords: Japan East Asia Gift Reciprocity Favour
Clusters: Redistribution Substantive ambivalence Sociability of instrumentality Economies of favours
Author: Katherine Rupp
Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Yale University, USA
Website: Profile page at LinkedIn

By Katherine Rupp, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, USA

In Japan, the practice of giving gifts. There is not a single, generic word for “gift” in Japanese; rather, there are hundreds of terms for specific kinds of giving. Okurimono no shûkan is extremely important in Japanese society, and people invest substantial amounts of money in the practice. It is not uncommon for people to become so overwhelmed by their gift giving obligations that they make deals with their friends not to invite each other to their children’s weddings, or they avoid telling their neighbors if they go on a trip in order not to have to bring back presents for them. One Tokyo taxi driver, when circumstances forced him to return briefly to his hometown in Niigata, stayed in a hotel and let only very few people know of his presence, because he could not fulfill his various gift obligations[1].
Photograph depicting an envelope for an auspicious occasion that can occur more than one time.

Okurimono no shûkan is an important social practice not only at the personal and household levels, but on the national, macroeconomic level too. Japanese people spend a lot of time, worry, and money on gift giving, and it thus accounts for a significant share of consumer spending. For example, 60 percent of the annual profits of Tobu department store, one of the biggest department stores in Tokyo, come from ochûgen and oseibo, summer and winter gifts (Miura Seiichi, Vice President, Tobu Department Store).

A major avenue for social mobility in Japan is through bribery and patronage. The distinctions and continuities between “gift” and “bribe” are subtle and complicated. People give summer and winter gifts to their bosses, to the teachers of their children, to their doctors. Parents give huge sums of money to the bosses of their sons when those bosses serve as nakôdo (“go-betweens” or “matchmakers” who often serve important functions in the couples’ lives before, during, and after marriage) at their sons’ weddings. Parents and spouses pay the equivalent in yen of thousands of dollars to doctors (particularly surgeons) who care for their loved ones. Bureaucrats in Japan have wide authority to make policy, grant licenses, and dispense lucrative contracts, sometimes with very little accountability, and people in industry naturally seek their favors. Politicians receive donations from industry, and intercede with the bureaucracy to secure projects on industry’s behalf.

All of these practices can be considered okurimono no shûkan. The grey area between gift giving and corruption is very complex. The notion of bribery (wairô) is certainly present in Japanese society. In her own research, the author came across two instances of people who refused to participate in okurimono no shûkan because they found it repugnant. In one instance, a middle-aged woman refused to make a cash gift to the surgeon who performed a complicated operation. When it became absolutely clear that she was not going to hand over the large sum of money, the quality of her care declined precipitously, and she eventually died in the hospital. Her daughter related this harrowing experience, and emphasized her mother’s stubborn and upright character. On a lighter note, an elderly man who worked as a stock broker for many years refused to participate in seasonal giving, which he believed often serves as a “cover” for bribery. He once returned a box of live shrimp that had been sent to him by a client. The shipping clerks were so disconcerted by his refusal of this gift that they returned it to him, by which time all the shrimp were dead. Bribery between government and construction company officials is extremely hard to investigate, although the author at times came close to accessing pretty specific information by interviewing the wife of a construction company president. Often, large amounts of cash are concealed within boxes containing seasonal gifts (such as traditional Japanese sweets). These large cash amounts – sometimes the equivalent in yen of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars – are made before the government official grants a particular favour and would be considered by most Japanese to be bribes. However, the perceived line between “gift” and “bribe” varies from one individual to another, and the pressure to participate in all kinds of okurimono no shûkan is fierce. There are individuals who resist, but they often find themselves in the minority.

Photograph of the top of a bamboo box given to guests at a wedding as a return gift. Inside the box was the auspicious food of glutinous rice and red beans. Drawn on the box is the character for rejoicing, and pictured are two cranes and a pine tree. These are all auspicious symbols: while pine trees are green even in winter, cranes are said to live for 1,000 years; tortoises are also said to live for 1,000 years, which are often depicted with moss trailing off their shells. Note that the cranes are red and white and that the rice and beans are red and white because these are considered auspicious colours.

Many of the practices comprising okurimono no shûkan originated in other parts of Asia. The seasonal cycles have correlates in China, as do many of the numerological and divinatory aspects of Japanese gift giving. Examination of Japanese gift practices leads to a deeper exploration of networks and social relationships in Japanese society, and, at the same time, to a more detailed understanding of processes of borrowing and transformation in the history of Asian cultural interchange.

Very many gifts take the form of cash, the prototypical commodity-form. Even when gifts are objects other than cash, in numerous instances it is prescribed that they be as impersonal as possible. The giving of gifts is subject to a calculus of value based on monetary price, for precise attention to monetary cost is integral to the negotiation of certain relationships. When one receives a gift from a department store, for example, there is a code printed on it, and this reveals how much the gift cost. Japanese florists report that when they deliver flowers, recipients enquire how much the flowers are worth [2]. The reason why the receiver is so concerned with the price of the gift is that in many cases, a return gift is necessary, and in order to make the appropriate type of return gift, it is essential to know the cost of the original gift.
From one point of view, the cash value of gifts and the cash given at these exchanges has nothing to do with buying and selling. Rather, it is connected to notions of auspiciousness, encompassment, and alignment. Giving related to weddings and other happy occasions often emphasizes units of odd numbers. Some sums of cash that are technically even—such as 10,000 yen or 100,000 yen—are considered as odd numbered units of one. The cords used to tie the envelopes are made from odd numbers of strands; the cord with the highest number of strands, nine, is appropriate for a very auspicious event, such as a wedding. The envelopes that contain the money are folded in such a way that left is placed over right and top is placed over bottom.

Photograph showing an envelope for a funeral.

These internal ‘rules’ governing okurimono no shûkan stem from the philosophy of yin and yang. In terms of position, top and left are yang, bottom and right are yin. In regard to numbers, odd is yang, even is yin. Every odd number greater than one contains within it both an even number and an odd number (for example, 3=1+2). Odd numbers are preferred to even numbers because a hierarchical principle is at work, in which “the elements of the whole are ranked in relation to the whole” [3]. The inferior becomes a member of the superior, the even is subsumed within the odd. In philosophical discourse, the relationship between yin and yang is not represented to be hierarchical, but in many forms of practice, the flourishing of the natural and social worlds is accomplished only when disorder (yin) submits to order (yang).

The number of strands in the cord that ties the envelope, the odd numbered units of bills the envelope contains, the way the envelope is folded, are all material embodiments of the encompassment of yin by yang, of female by male, and the life that flows from that hierarchical ordering. Precise measurement, both in terms of the emphasis on odd units of bills and on the cash value given, enables and underscores this encompassment. Gifts to male employees are of considerably higher cash value than gifts to female employees. Unequal treatment of male and female itself underscores the importance of reproduction, because within this symbolic system, it is through the combination of male and female in unequal relationships that life is believed to be created and sustained.

Hierarchical ordering is believed nurture life, and refusal to synchronize one’s giving and receiving with this larger system is considered inward-looking and selfish. The strong pressure to conform is probably related to certain Chinese derived beliefs that moral human action consists of alignment with the cosmic order; lack thereof results in disorder in the realms both of nature and society. This may be why so many individual Japanese people devote so much time, energy, and money to giving and receiving, and feel pressure to perform “correctly.” Performing correctly means taking each particular instance of giving and linking it up to something more general and abstract, such as cycles of seasons, frameworks of specialty items from far away places, and hierarchical orderings of human beings, department stores, or numbers. In this context, monetary and quasi-monetary signs are important for giving in that they are apprehended as specific quantities that are auspicious because they align with a greater process.


  1. Field, N. Personal communication with Dr Katherine Rupp
  2. Rupp, Katherine. 2004. Gift Giving in Japan: Cash, Connections, Cosmologies. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  3. Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. Mark Sainbury, trans. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Further reading

  1. Befu, Harumi. 1967. ‘Gift-Giving and Social Reciprocity in Japan’, France-Asie/Asia 21: 161-167
  2. Befu, Harumi. 1968. ‘Gift Giving in A Modernizing Japan’, Monumenta Nipponica 23: 445-56
  3. Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. 1975. ‘An Alternative Approach to Reciprocity’, American Anthropologist, 77: 550-65
  4. Yang, Mayfair. 1994. Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  5. Yan, Yunxiang. 1996. The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press