Sunday, March 30, 2008


What To Take To Japan: The Gift Edition

Japan is an old world culture, which means that gift-giving is essential. It shows that you have respect for your hosts and chaperones and I was trained early to arrive with a gift in hand. It would actually feel physically uncomfortable for me if I did not. But gift giving has become increasingly complicated.

Once upon a time it was very easy to show up with a Hershey's chocolate bar (from America!). But once Japan's economy went gang-busters in the 80s and young women discovered Louis Vuitton, an overly sweetened chalky confection was no longer going to impress anyone accustomed to this:

So, what to do.

It can be a challenge. I've learned that brand name items go over very well. Try as I might to give people hand-made and "meaningful" presents, it is generally the brand-name gift which is most impressive because people understand the value of what is being given to them. Thus my Metropolitan Museum of Art Christmas ornaments have been a failure while my Chanel lipstick collections (from the Duty Free shop) have been a success. Grr. I would much rather have the Christmas ornament . . .

This is not always true, of course. One year I took some small Dean and Deluca totes for friends, thinking that the more worldly relatives would find the bags charming. I was actually asked:

"How can anyone shop with something so small and useless?" (This behavior is, by no means, typical of most Japanese people, and if I hadn't understood Japanese in the first place, I might have thought she actually liked the bag).

Of course, once Dean and Deluca opened a few shops around Japan, the bag's "meaning" was made clear, and now I have a standing order to show up with a few more.

There have been other mishaps. Once I took some Kangol hats because I thought friends might find the resurgence of the kangaroo kind of . . . ironic. I forgot that irony is something that some of us are obsessed with. Irony is not worldwide. No one liked or understood the Kangol hat in Japan, though everyone dutifully learned the English phrases "It's in" and "It's out" and "It's in again" that I taught while handing out the hats. Now I no longer try to start trends in Japan. I leave that to Koda Kumi.

Here, then, in no particular order, are my top gifts.

1. Mariebelle Chocolate. Most people like chocolate. Mariebelle chocolate has little pictures on each piece, which makes them unique and "kawaii." The packaging is also very nice and acceptable to a culture in which triple wrapping everything is the norm.

2. Yankee gear. *Sigh* I'm not a Yankees fan. But the Japanese love baseball and, well, you can't get much more brand conscious than the Yankees. I have tried in the past to interest friends in non-Yankees gear, but the other teams so far don't "mean" anything--though the Red Sox are now starting to make some sense since Daisuke started pitching. I have a standing request to provide one signed ball by Daisuke, but honestly, that is not happening any time soon . . .

3. Burberry polos. My knowledge of luxury goods used to be limited to what I found in my favorite thrift shop, which my friends and I refer to by the code name: "Chez Marie." I had a lot of fun for many years in Chez Marie amassing Hermes ties for my boyfriend (99 cents!) and an original Diane von Furstenberg silk wrap dress for myself ($12!) and a real, honest to goodness Gucci scarf ($1.99!). Etc. Now I have for the first time ventured into an actual Burberry store to inspect its items in search of appropriate gifts. And actually, I like the stuff a lot. Of course, none of it is for me, but for the VIP people on my present list. I opted for the polo shirt above because the tartan lines the lapel and it is therefore obvious who made the shirt which is important if the shirt is to mean something.

4. Dean and Deluca coffee. I am partial to the mini-six pack because it actually has six different kinds of coffee, one of which is the Soho blend and people have increasingly heard of Soho in New York. It would be like me showing up in the States with a pack of "Harajuku Tea." You might think it was cool just because of the name alone, even though the best Japanese tea has nothing to do with Harajuku. But I digress. Coffee is expensive in Japan. Giving it (like chocolate) seems a little bit decadent. And now that the Dean and Deluca brand has just enough visibility to have some cachet, I have found it to be a most successful present. Honestly, it was a little bit of a tough sell at first because of the low Dean and Deluca brand awareness, but that is not a problem any more. (Note: coffee is generally a present you give to men).

5. Sabuda pop-up books. I simply cannot go to Japan without at least one item that is not a "brand name." I know that my family and friends can put their brand-obsession aside for a minute when faced with something truly creative and dazzling. Everyone loves the Wizard of Oz. The country that came up with origami just has to appreciate these incredible books. Plus, they are relatively light and easy to carry and I very much want kids to feel that books are magical, regardless of their country of origin. Plus, if I can get a kid to associate me with a creative gift, perhaps they will accept a "creative gift" better once they are a little bit older . . .

6. Drummond Tartan scarf. I can't resist adding this to the list. I have had a lot of fun explaining to people that my husband has a clan and that he is actually from Scotland (yes, he has the accent and no I won't tell you what is under the kilt). Most people become very excited when I tell them that a clan tartan is like a Japanese family crest. The whole notion of having a family crest is very romantic after all, as you can tell from the way that it is still popular to watch "historical" TV shows in which samurai duke it out against each other. And then when I explain that Braveheart was set in Scotland, it all sort of comes together--Scottish clans=Japanese samurai--and the whole thing becomes very, very exciting.

Here is the preview to this year's Taiga drama. I am so going to have to watch. I love the voices, love the scenery . . . and the drama stars a girl!

As for what to buy in Japan for American friends . . . this is much, much easier. Japan is a shopper's paradise.

A nice selection, to be sure, but you have forgotten to include the gift I have had much luck with: a good, old-fashioned bottle of Johnny Walker Black.

More than once I have handed over nicely wrapped boxes containing that estimable prize to a business associate in the record industry and gotten a response like, "Oh, how did you know to give this? When I was a boy my father and his friends considered this gift of the highest-quality. It was the ultimate American identifier. And it was very expensive. These days, of course, many people can afford much more expensive brands, but this one still holds much nostalgic power over my father's generation. It is kind of you to remind me of my own youth in this way."

Then again, maybe they were just being polite . . . but I know that- at least in business, booze works.

Nice blogging, as always. Love the tree post too. But where is the praying dog?

You are right, of course, and I did think of your past success as I was compiling my list. I being but a feeble girl didn't think that hauling alcohol across Japan was going to be terribly practical. But since you put matters so poetically . . . perhaps I WILL visit the Duty Free shop. After all, I will most likely be RETURNING with a few special sake bottles in tow to share with special friends.
The dog is now praying.
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