In Japan, holiday gift-giving is often just another business deal

Come December and Tokyo businesswoman Atsuko Aono cuts her biggest deals of the year. She sends gilt-edge gift certificates worth 30,000 yen ($120) to the heads of businesses that buy software from her small but flourishing computer company. Managers receive slabs of pink Canadian salmon, while computer engineers get two pairs of Pierre Cardin socks.

Nor has Ms. Aono forgotten the matchmaker who is trying to find her a husband - she gets a tin of fancy green tea.

''I give to people who are useful to me,'' says Ms. Aono.

Such is the spirit of oseibo, Japan's year-end gift-giving season. Oseibo is often called the ''Japanese Christmas,'' and there are some uniquely Japanese twists to it.

In the first place, the gift-giving stems from hard-headed self-interest rather than any altruistic spirit of sharing. What's more, gift mania strikes twice a year, once in December and on a slightly smaller scale in June.

The giving creates the unique blend of obligation and goodwill that lubricates the all-important human relations in the Japanese business world. Corporate executives give to their top customers, office workers to their superiors, and patients to doctors. Even hostesses press neckties and lottery tickets on their best patrons.

But like the student who foists an apple on the teacher, givers expect something in return. ''It's a statement by the person who is dependent that they want the relationship to continue in a favorable manner,'' says Ann Murase, professor of anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Unwritten rules governing many relationships demand that the dependent person hand over a gift. Delinquent givers suffer a loss of face that could translate into bad job assignments and broken business deals.

The value of the gift matters less than the prestige of the store where it was purchased. Gifts are presented in the original wrapping paper with the store's name prominently displayed.

Sides of ham and exquisitely wrapped boxes of cheese and butter are some of the more common presents. But in the upper corporate tiers Rolex watches, ski trips, and jewelry are the norm.

But what about less desirable gifts? What is the recipient of white elephants such as 40 cans of corn soup, two dozen bars of Lux soap, and five golf balls nestled in a velvet box to do? Many of the unwanted items are exchanged or sold to pawn stores.

Or, ''When you receive a gift you can't use, just thank the person graciously and give it to someone else,'' says Nario Kumito, a salesperson at Seibu, Japan's biggest department store.

Oseibo also means big profits for stores. Express elevators in department stores whisk customers up to special floors jammed with colorfully wrapped presents. Businesses keep gift accounts at the department stores and simply let the stores deliver the presents.

Yet for all its contribution to business harmony and profits, oseibo does have a darker side.

The flow of gifts is upward, with rich people getting the most. For people at the lower end, the gift buying is often a financial burden. And as it is impossible to refuse a gift, the receiver may be saddled with an unwanted obligation.

For no-strings-attached giving, Western-style Christmas is becoming increasingly popular, says Mrs. Murase. Dec. 25 is still a workday in Japan, but parents use Christmas as an excuse to dote on their children, and young men to woo their sweethearts with boxes of chocolate.

Friends exchange red and green Christmas cakes and cards. On Christmas Eve they go to a night show to hear a local chanteuse belt out her version of ''Jingle Bells.''

Explains computer company chief Ms. Aono: ''Oseibo is just business for me, but Christmas is a time for my family and friends.''

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