Japan's gift-giving mania - the right present at the right time

Giving gifts is as Japanese as ... well as Mt. Fuji. But you cannot simply give a present when the mood hits you. Japan, after all, is a nation which values ritual. Gifts must be presented at certain times and in an exact way.

There are, for example, bon voyage gifts for travelers going abroad. And then omiyage, the souvenirs that must be brought back for all relatives, friends, and office mates from any trip, even from a weekend jaunt.

But the gift that really counts is the oseibo, the present to mark the end of the year. Oseibo season is known to all - presents can be given anytime in December, but no later than the 31st.

The discerning shopper does his oseibo selections at one of Japan's many department stores, establishments capable of yielding virtually any of the heart's desires. Each store sets up a special oseibo section. Oseibo is big business. This year it will bring in 13.5 billion yen (about $100 million) to the main Mitsukoshi Department Store in downtown Tokyo alone. The store hires some 5,000 part-time employees for the season.

Samples of the most popular items line the walls of the section on the 7th floor of Mitsukoshi. Half of one wall is covered with an Oseibo classic - boxed sets of vegetable oils. How about 4 cans of Nisshin Salad Oil for $16. Canned foods are another favorite. Six cans of crab meat for $160 could be just the thing.

The old standbys are there. Deluxe sets of coffee and tea. Cake and cookies. Bean paste wrapped in bamboo leaf. Individually wrapped mushrooms. Pressed sheets of dried seaweed. An entire salmon, vacuum sealed in plastic ($96).

About 90 percent of the oseibo offerings are foodstuffs like these. They may not be exactly intimate but they're safe. Tomiko Ochiai was browsing through these choices, looking for presents for her husband's business contacts. She has about 100,000 yen ($800) to spend on 20 gifts. Her criteria - ``amount first, then something that does not spoil, and then the taste of the person.''

Mrs. Ochiai admits to not feeling much enthusiasm for it all. ``Personally I don't enjoy giving and receiving gifts for oseibo,'' she says.

Sadao Horiguchi, the executive of a small catering business, has a more complicated shopping task. They give presents to the 15 or so major companies that have contracts with them. It's not all impersonal - if the man has children, they try to find something the whole family can eat. How much to spend? Depends on the size of the contract, he says, or the status of the person. A company president rates a 20,000-yen ($160) salmon.

All this can be mighty confusing. People turn for help to Mitsukoshi's ``Gift Consultant,'' Akiyoshi Ujiie, a convivial grey-haired gentleman who has been at the gift business since the early 1950s. Back in those days, when Japan was in the early stages of recovery from the war, he recalls that more than a third of the gifts were necessities like shirts or socks. Now the affluent Japanese ``can enjoy life more.''

The serious oseibo giver can sit down at a counter and flip through a glossy 280-page catalogue of possibilities. No need to settle for corn oil here (although there are 10 pages devoted to that exciting item).

The pages are color coded by type of good and by the price range of the items - ``Ham, 2,000 - 20,000 yen''. We could start with Tiffany silver - a pair of $200 cuff links was already sold out. Other popular items included a Burberry sweatsuit ($80), cashmir wool sweaters from Scotland, and something you can never go wrong with in Japan, golf balls.

The discerning gift giver - being wildly extravagant would also help - might prefer a crocodile skin wallet ($1,200) or a Mercedes 4-wheel drive vehicle ($54,000).

A fantastic array of food fills most of the catalogue, including fresh foods that are delivered to your door. Beef in every possible form, including nice thick American sirloins (don't ask how much). A box of 36 Florida oranges might be nice (though $80 is a little steep). Our favorite is a $800 seafood set. The store will call the recipient who can choose what type of raw fish (sashimi), clams, lobsters, and sea snails he wants and set the time of delivery.

In today's Japan, the hottest oseibo gifts are services. Tokyu Department Stores offers an end-of-the-year cleaning service - it is traditional to clean your house at this time. Last year Seibu Department Stores had young women dressed as bunnies deliver your gift.

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