CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / Ordinary brilliance: Differing representations of year-end gift-giving

The holiday season has ended and the Western media’s gift-list frenzy along with it. This time I was particularly struck by how “curated” the categories were. Of course, there were the usual personal classifications of “for Mom,” “for Dad,” “for her,” “for him,” “for kids,” and so on. Then there were the groupings by item type, like food, tech and music, or according to budget. But things got so much more specific. Forbes posted “The best Italian food gifts” and the Los Angeles Times provided “The 29 best self-care gifts for your highly stressed friends (or yourself).”

I was intrigued — and vicariously stressed — just reading through them all. Selecting gifts in the U.S. requires thinking carefully about all the “beloved but quirky, picky, fancy, practical or eccentric people in your life,” as The New York Times puts it. A recent Morning Brew meme, created by “Josh in Fargo, ND,” shows two passengers on a train. One, seated on the left, looks out despairingly at a dark, gloomy rock wall, while the rider on the right smiles enthusiastically at mountain vistas. Underneath the first it says, “I don’t know what to get anyone for Christmas.” The cheerful guy’s caption simply reads, “Gift cards.” Gift cards have been on the rise, but the plethora of gift guides suggested that many were still striving to find the perfect item for everyone on their list. It is to be hoped they were not as desolate in their pursuit as the non-gift card passenger.

Christmas gift-giving and the Japanese oseibo year-end gift-giving both take place in December, but they are poles apart. While all of this mostly jolly folly was going on in Christmas present-bestowing parts of the world this winter, here in Japan, Marudai Food Co. created a humorously nostalgic oseibo commercial for its ham. In a Showa-era flashback mode, a father and son eagerly enter a Japanese-style room, exclaiming “Wow!” as they gaze at the table. The mother explains delightedly that that evening’s dinner is special and points to each platter: “This is the Marudai ham from Maruyama-san”; “This is the Marudai ham from Takahashi-san”; “This is the Marudai ham from Inoue-san”; “This is the Marudai ham from Tanaka-san.” Each plate looks the same. Marudai’s message seems to be, Why mess with a good thing for the sake of uniqueness?

The typical oseibo-seeker is not aiming for a “dose of gift magic,” as the BBC Good Food website puts it, just something predictably welcome to express gratitude: meat, sweets, drinks. The Tokyu department store website listed 1,150 oseibo gifts and of these, the bulk fell into one of six categories: sweets (398); prepared foods like soup, curry and pizza (214); alcohol (161); meat (144), nonalcoholic drinks, such as tea, juice and coffee (139); and seafood (110). Other types with 45 items or over on offer included fruit (66); oil, soy sauce, dashi, salad dressing, honey (56); dried noodles (53); soap, detergent (50); and nori (45). Other than “soap, detergent,” the only other nonfood choice was three flower items.

In contrast, Bloomingdale’s, the U.S. department store, had gift categories including gourmet food and candy (341); men’s cold-weather accessories (279); women’s cold-weather accessories (654); family pajamas (121); candles (1,352); men’s slippers (32); women’s slippers (127); kids’ toys (395); pet (192); and active/ athleisure a whopping 1,894 items.

There’s a difference here, between “I’ll demonstrate my thoughtfulness with this specially selected gift just for you” and “I’ll show my thoughtfulness with this dependable gift that can’t really go amiss.”

Oseibo is not really about the magic of the season, unless the spirit of gratitude is its own enchantment. References to gratitude abound. An online commercial for Asahi Super Dry twice uses the phrase “Kotoshi ichinen no kansha o komete” (Filled with the gratitude of this year). Rakuten has a series of oseibo commercials featuring the super charming Yu Aoi, including one in which she says, “To say ‘oseibo’ is too much, but calling it a thank-you gift is kind of nice.” In another, she calls her parents to ask what they want to eat at the end of the year. When they tell her crab, she’s seen choosing it on the Rakuten website. There’s no surprise involved, but also no worry trying to figure out what they would like.

In Japan, Christmas and oseibo are generally distinct, but Oana-Maria Birlea, a researcher of Japanese advertising discourse, has analyzed a Coca-Cola Christmas ad from 1964 that shows a snowman surrounded by coke bottles topped with puppet heads and torsos of winter merrymakers. The copy below the art reads (in Japanese): “Coca-Cola is the best for Christmas and year-end gifts. Let’s send with all our heart that freshness and taste! Crisp and refreshing Coca-Cola.” I’m not sure anyone in Japan now gives or formerly gave Coke as a present for either holiday, but Birlea writes, “[W]e can assume that the black, cold, crisp American beverage has made its way into the Japanese houses by being an alternative to the traditional oseibo gift.” If true, this would represent an attempt to allow Coke to wriggle into Japan in an oseibo-shaped Trojan horse, and who knows? Perhaps it worked. On the other hand, Rakuten’s website only attaches the following key words to various boxes of Coke: gift, father, birthday, present.

Over the years I’ve received oseibo gifts of soup, juice, sweets, jam, pasta, udon, oil and many other things, all of which were greatly appreciated and enjoyed. Looking back, one that particularly pleased me was a box of 10 packages of Snow Brand Hokkaido Butter. It was just the normal kind sold in the supermarket, but the 200-gram packs in bright yellow and red looked festive and could be frozen for later use or easily shared with friends and neighbors. It’s something I can’t imagine ever giving or receiving as a Christmas present, but its very ordinariness was brilliantly extraordinary.