Dear Ava,

Right from the get-go I’ve been wary of “omiyage”. I hate shopping for birthday presents, and now I have to buy obligatory gifts for co-workers I barely even speak to? I do enjoy a good Tokyo banana when it’s left for me, but I would opt out in a blink of an eye to save myself from all the bloody mochi hidden under my desk (I call it mochi mound, but it’s growing!) and from wracking my brains and emptying my pockets for appropriate local morsels every time I take a trip.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a good JET, I listened at pre-departure orientation and brought in some trinkets from my home country. The problem came when I caught the travel bug. I’ve already visited a handful of prefectures and made my first trip abroad to Taiwan this winter break. Each and every time I’m busting my budget to bring back the goods, not to mention exceeding the hand luggage allowance!

I cannot be the only one having this problem. Please tell me how to cut down on my omiyage giving, or even better, cut it out altogether. I’m tired of running to the gift shop last minute, lest I be guilt ridden the next time another over packaged, over sweetened mochi mysteriously appears on my desk. This is one aspect of Japanese culture I can do without.


Agonising in Ako



Dear Agonising and miserly,


It must be admitted that gift culture here is rather different from what you may be used to. One might even go so far as to call it a guilt-gift culture. You must realise that omiyage is not an innocuous tidbit from a distant prefecture; it is a heartfelt, guilt-ridden apology for leaving your colleagues to hold the fort without you. Just think how lost they will be without your help in those student and class-free periods, omiyage is your penance. You have broken rank and abandoned your [work-free] post and must acknowledge this treachery with an envy-inducing sugary something of remorse. Not doing so is tantamount to dancing round the staff room shouting “I’m taking my annual leave to RELAX, not because I have a cold.” This option is not advised; there is internationalisation, and then there is antagonism.


To save yourself some yen – though let’s be honest, why bother with current exchange rates? –  indulge in another traditional aspect of Japanese gift culture: re-gifting. That mound of mochi need not be left for your poor successor to find on their first sweltering day at the desk; simply pass on the unwanted confectionery upon return from your next jolly. Your colleagues will either not notice the eco-friendly provenance, or will be too polite to comment. Here also lies the only redeeming feature of those preservatives and layers of plastic wrapping: omiyage lasts. In fact do leave some for your successor with an explanation of the system; they will be forever indebted to you.




Ava Hart