Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Random Memory #28

My first experience with Japanese gift-giving was a very confusing one in 1988 when I visited my future husband. At that time, I didn't know about the way in which gifts are used to build, cement, or verify relationships. In fact, I can't say now that I understand all of the nuances involved in the custom, and I'm not sure I ever will.

When I went to Tokyo in 1988 to spend a month-long vacation there, I visited my boyfriend at the school at which he was working. In fact, I spend a bit too much time there because he had a lot of down time (no classes scheduled because it was a relatively new school) and told me that it was okay if I hung out with him when he wasn't busy. It turned out that it was something he concluded logically, but that he didn't actually ask his Japanese superiors about. 

Even if he wasn't busy, he was supposed to pretend he was. He spent about 8 months spending the times during which he wasn't busy listening to me talk on tape, writing me letters, listening to the Far East Network (the only English radio he could get), reading books or magazines, etc., but he couldn't do something which flaunted that fact that he wasn't working like having me sit there and talk to him. 

On the bright side for the school, I was willing to actually take part in a class at the request of one of my boyfriend's students. For some reason, she wanted to ask me questions and I obliged. I know now that I was a "free bonus" to her, two teachers for the price of one. I also know that what we did was horribly inappropriate behavior for that particular job. At some schools, no work means no pay so you can do anything you want during unscheduled hours, but he was salaried at that time which meant they owned him during the hours he was supposed to be working. Yes, we were immature and culturally clueless and screwed up. At the time, it shocked us that they rather tersely told him to not have me there anymore, but now we know better. 

At the end of the week in which this uncomfortable confrontation occurred, I met him at the school at the end of the working day. A group of his students wanted to take us both out for dinner at an izakaya (Japanese pub) nearby. Though I felt pretty awkward returning to "the scene of the crime", I knew that there was nothing wrong with my meeting him there after work to be escorted to the place with the students who wanted to take us out.

Before we left, something very weird happened. The school staff gave me a bottle of wine and a bouquet of carnations. They didn't know me and I had no relationship with them aside from being the cause of forcing them to have an unpleasant exchange with a teacher. It was shocked and confused at this display of generosity and the accompanying smiles. I awkwardly thanked them, and we went off to dinner at which  my boyfriend's student gave him a clock that looked like a watch with the words "Coca-Cola" on it. 

After dinner, which I remember mainly as being loud and full of difficult exchanges with people of wildly varying levels of English competence and plates of weird food, my boyfriend and I went back to his apartment and tried to puzzle out what the gift-giving was all about. We thought it might have been an apology for asking me not to come anymore, but we never did understand why I was given these items. 

After having lived in Japan for a long time, I think that I know to some extent the answer to the question of why they gave the gift. I think it was a combination of letting my future husband know that there were no hard feelings toward me for violating their office rules and etiquette, but also simply because that is what Japanese people do.

Sometimes things happen because it is the rule, not because there is a deep and meaningful reason forming in the hearts of people who are performing the action. For instance, Japanese people bow instead of shaking hands, but the reason that they chose this sort of greeting is often not understood by those who perform it. If you ask them why, they may say it's about not touching each other and exchanging germs like hand shakes do. Many of them may not know the real reason or history. They just do it without thinking (much as many Western folks may shake hands without knowing the history of that gesture).

I'm not sure what happened to the wine that we were given. I don't drink any alcohol, and my husband didn't at that time. The flowers wilted and faded to dust. The clock was left behind for the next person who occupied the apartment my husband had been occupying. The memories though live on in the pictures of the gifts I took, the lessons I learned, and the stories that I tell. That is where the true value of gift-giving lies.


  1. I think that is one of the reasons why I've come to like gift giving culture. In our digital, fleeting world, where instantaneous memories are generated in Facebook, and then forgotten, and when we eventually move on to the next thing we will totally lose those memories. When you give physical gifts, there's tactile feedback and the memories last longer; many Japanese keep the wrappings of gifts to retain those memories, and explains why many like to still print out photos.

  2. One of the reasons that I blog is to hold onto those memories by writing them down and sharing them. The writing solidifies them. The sharing increases the chance that I will keep writing.

    It is true that physical gifts and print outs carry more memory weight than more ephemeral digital counterparts. I guess it's one of the reasons that the idea of gift cards rubs me the wrong way. I took pictures of every goodbye gift I was given in Japan, even if it was food and would be consumed, because I didn't want to forget it.

    Looking back over the immense amount of correspondence that my husband and I had when we were in our long distance relationship (both cassettes and written items), I wonder if people who are in similar relationships now and benefit from things like Skype and chatting will regret not having a detailed record of their "courtship" as we do. I know that I treasure the memories and am in the process of digitizing them so that they are less likely to be permanently lost in the case of a disaster (fire, flood, theft, etc.) I'll still keep everything as is, but it's just too valuable to lose!

    Thanks for your comment!


Comments are moderated and will not show up immediately. If you want to make sure that your comment survives moderation, be respectful. Pretend you're giving feedback to your boss and would like a raise when you're speaking. Comments that reflect anger or a bad attitude on the part of the poster will not be posted. I strongly recommend reading the posts "What This Blog Is and Is Not" and "Why There Were No Comments" (in the sidebar under "FYI") before commenting.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.