Today, a random tweet by an amusing fellow by the name of @daev got me thinking about omiyage. I’m not a fan. I’m not completely against it – after all where else would I get such a continual supply of chocolate macadamias? – and I think that buying presents for people you care about is lovely, but that’s not what omiyage is. Rather, for me anyway, it’s about feeling guilty if you don’t bring gifts.
We like giving and receiving presents because they show thought and care and friendship. Well, and because we get something for free. The actual gift shouldn’t matter, though, because, as we are often reminded, it’s the thought that counts. Omiyage, however, breaks that premise. I say this because when I buy omiyage with my wife my thoughts are usually, ‘What the fuck do we have to get him something for?’ and, ‘Do we really have to spend so much time on this vacation in tourist tat shops buying shite?’ And it appears we do. Every time I return to my native country I spend far too large a proportion of my time shopping for gifts to take back to family, friends, and, crucially, people I have to interact with regularly but might not be particularly fond of. I buy gifts for people whose first names I don’t know, whose ages and dates of birth I have no idea of and whose company I never actively seek. But I buy them things simply because I know I will see them and they will know I have been away. And they will thank me profusely and put on a good show of being excited at receiving shortbread again and we will all pretend that this is a worthwhile thing to do. But it really isn’t.
Occasionally, omiyage creates less of a facade of kindness and more of a blatant demonstration of just how much of an afterthought you were. I have had gifts I didn’t much care for before – an ear pick springs to mind – but at least with most of those I could appreciate the gesture. There had been some thought. That it was, ‘He needs to give his ears a good clean’ is beside the point. But when a student returned from Hawaii and presented me with a bottle of lemon fresh kids’ shampoo, I guessed I was at the bottom of his omiyage list. For starters, I have no children. Nor, however, as my student had surely noticed, do I have any hair. This was clearly a last-minute ‘Shit, what can I give the teacher?’ moment to which the student’s wife had handed him a bag as he ran out the door and said, ‘Just give him this.’ He did, and I pretended I was pleased and that it had been a gift worth buying.
I wasn’t insulted by his gift. I understand that it was given in the spirit of obligation, but I do think it was unnecessary. With weight restrictions on luggage having become more stringent in recent years I resent having to fill my case with pointless gifts for people who, truth be told, probably don’t care either way whether or not they get something. So, I’m trying to cut down on the gifts from the UK. Instead, I pop down to Kaldi when I get back to Japan. There, I get the emergency reserves. They stock shortbread. And anyway, buying there means never worrying about not having enough. A couple of years back, I’d come up short and ended up giving a fellow a packet of crumbs which had once been cheese and onion crisps and a melted fun-sized Twix. I’d snaffled them from the snack galley on the plane home and had then apparently sat on them for most of the flight. I felt bad. Not too bad, though, for he’d once given me a gift mocking my baldness.