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November 24, 1995 - Image 145

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-11-24

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Bonds of Friendship


of small


acts a year






hen December rolls
Presento, okurimono, o-
around and gifts be- miyage, o-chugen, o-seibu ... there
come a collective is a name to fit every kind of gift
headache for almost in Japan, and the optional hon-
everyone, I close my eyes orific "o" added to the front of
and take a mental trip to most of the terms reflects the for-
Japan, where, despite the mality with which gifts are re-
department-store slogans, few garded.
gifts actually change hands for the
While Japanese etiquette may
holidays. The Japanese resist, per- have perished in certain areas—
haps needing a respite from pre- say, the rush for seats on the sub-
sento wars fought long and hard way— it is upheld rigorously in
during the rest of the year.
gift rituals, where a strongly felt

duty to reciprocate can turn the
gift of a nice package of dried eel
into a back-and-forth battle that
can last forever.
I spent two years enduring
such skirmishes in Hayama, a
small, serene beach town south
of Tokyo where my husband, a
Navy officer, was stationed. I'd
been alerted that a nice present
delivered to my nearest neigh-
bors immediately upon moving
in would send the right message:
I was mannerly, cooperative, and
deeply apologetic for the stress
caused by my moving van's pres-
So at my first sighting of an
okusan, or "person of the interi-
or," as housewives are politely
called, I approached with a Whit-
man's Sampler box outstretched.
But my neighbor appeared star-
tled and refused the gift. Three
times. I persisted and after a few
more minutes, Mrs. Inaba, an at-
tractive woman dressed in tweed
trousers and frilly apron, finally
took my present into both hands
and held it up to her forehead —
a sign of respect.
She had the kindness, then, to
help fill in the words I'd forgot-
ten in my requisite gift-giving
line: "This is really a small, in-
significant thing."
I was elated. This was just as
the etiquette books said it would
be. I'd employed the right Berlitz
phrase; she'd refused before ac-
cepting; we were going to be
But not so quickly. Despite my
promptness with the chocolates,
the neighbors still waited and
watched, until after a month or
two, the okusan next door shyly
presented me with five oranges.




Next came a gorgeous honeydew
melon from the neighbor across
the street. And so it went. Every
few weeks, when I least expect-
ed it, someone would come to my
door with a gift of fresh fruit or a
regional delicacy brought back
from vacation.
Food gifts turned out to be
some of the most welcome gifts
among the Japanese because
such items as soba noodles and
nori (the flat seaweed wrapped
around sushi) could be quickly
consumed and thus forgotten —
versus lingering on a shelf, a
physical reminder of a lasting
debt. Relatively inexpensive,
these items allowed hundreds of
small gift-giving acts a year.
Soon I grew to realize that any-
one entering the house, short of
the gas woman, would bring a
gift, despite my many entreaties
to "relax and just be friends."
Gifts were, for the most part, sim-
ple and sublime, like the bunch
of dried lavender brought all the
way from somebody's garden in
the Japanese Alps and five tan-
gerines nestled in green washi
paper — the wrapping being al-
most as important as the gift it-
Discreet concealment is key;
in fact the word for wrapping,
tsutsumi, is said to stem from a
verb meaning to refrain, be mod-
erate and careful. Paper wrap-
ping also ensures a gift's purity
which, in the case of food, makes
good sense.
The wrapped gift would then
travel in yet another protective
covering, usually a crisp, colorful
paper shopping bag bearing a fa-
mous department-store logo.
And after all of this, upon pre-
sentation, the gift giver would LC)
adopt a thoroughly embarrassed Cr)
air and issue stock denigrations: Cr)
"I know you probably don't like
sweets, but maybe your wife will -ct-
eat them." Or, most poignantly:
"I'm sorry. I'm sure this isn't de- LU
licious at all."
As a recipient, my obligation w

Sujata Banerjee Massey is a Balti-
more writer working on a novel
set in Japan.


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