Wrapping up Japan's end-of-year gifts in style

While Western influences have permeated much of postwar Japanese life style, traditional gift-giving customs remain entrenched. True, Christmas trees were already in evidence in mid-November as leading department stores realized the commercial implications of the Christian festival.

But Dec. 25 is just another working day in Japan, and the real gift-giving seasons remain "O-Chugen" (midyear) and "O-Seibo" (year end).

The custom is de regeur. Anyone failing to observe it runs a strong risk of being labeled the Japanese equivalent of "Scrooge."

This is not just gift-giving within the immedite family or close circle of friends, however.

Company executives receive presents from underlings, schoolteachers from the parents of their students, medical men from their patients, landlords from their tenants, politicians from their proteges, and so on down the line.

A recent public opinion poll found 87 percent maintaining this year-end custom, despite campaigns by housewives and consumer groups against "this wasteful, price-boosting practice."

Japanese corporations normally pay their workers substantial bonuses -- usually equivalent to two or three months' pay -- in summer and at year-end, which contributes to the incredible shopping crush in leading department stores at these times.

Even on weekdays throughout December virtually endless lines form at special "O-Seibo" gift counters to order the special deliveries.

It has become ritualized to such an extent that department stores automatically add on 20 to 30 percent to their estimated sales figures for the final month of the year no matter how much of a spending slump there might have been earlier.

As with many aspects of Japanese life, the "show" of the surface trimmings counts for a great deal.

The average gift items costs between $15 and $20, and a great deal of thought has to go into hitting the right price for the social position of the recipient.

Department stores have managed to corner the market as far as prestige is concerned. The leading Tokyo stores have built up a reputation for high quality and variety of merchandise -- from fresh fish to gold bars -- and good customer service. The best have their own gourmet restaurants, art galleries, and even theatres.

It is because of this prestige image that most people would rather have their gifts delivered in the wrapping paper of a famous department store, even though the packets of soap inside, for example, can be obtained at half the cost from the corner shop. Even mundane cans of soup or spam can become a luxurious gift with the right packaging.

If there has been any change in the age-old custom, it is only in the type of gift being popularized.

Traditionally, edible seaweed (a Japanese delicacy), wines and liquors, coffee, cooking oil, and chemical seasoning have been the most popular items.

But these can no longer be guaranteed to impress recipients.

Hence, department stores this year are promoting gift sales of health foods and drinks, potted plants, air-freighted fresh fish, especially salmon, and "survival kits" (packages of emergency food and equipment useful in the event of typhoons, floods, or earthquakes).

With the nation becoming jittery about a predicted major earthquake any time now, department store executives expected big demand for the survival kits as gift items, showing, according to their promotional ads, "that you really care."

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