Chugen, which was marked in Japan last week, rivals Christmas as a time for gifts. Most are given in multiples of two (for good luck), the wrapping is saved (it is considered part of the gift), and openings occur in private. Chugen is indicative of the rituals that surround gift-giving in tradition-minded Asia. And for businessmen there, the timing as well as the card is critical, says Olive Imberman at Presents of Mind, a New York gift specialist. ``Asians prefer gifts after a relationship is defined.''
Gift-giving in Asia can help seal prospective contracts and initiate long-term business ties. The gift is often treated as critical, although it is still secondary to the business deal itself. Yet spending amounts, when and to whom to give are mysteries to many foreigners.
The most striking aspect of gift-giving in this region is that alcohol is losing favor. Alternatives include mementos such as pens and diaries, golf gear, and high-quality scarfs. Observers note that Asian businessmen are becoming aware of the negative effects of drinking.
American art posters - mountain scenery, national landmarks - are popular, and many American firms are printing up desk sets with company logos or something bearing ``Americana.''
``The functional gift should be identified with your company,'' says John Major at the New York-based Asia Society. ``Ties are perfectly acceptable, as are desk paraphernalia.''
Most gifts should have a real use, not just be ornaments. Cowboy hats, for example, are impractical. The key is to pick an item that helps ``cement future relationships,'' says Mark van Fleet, director of the international program at the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Not all business partners are expecting gifts, and for men or women who played a minor role in a transaction, a dinner is sufficient.
Other tips: Consumer electronics items do not always go over well, since they are widespread. Flowers should be avoided, since they are associated with funerals. Clocks in China are disdained, but enjoyed in Japan. Boxes of candy are appreciated by Chinese, but many prefer sweets and fruit candies over chocolates. But in Indonesia chocolates are uncommon and at a premium. Golf clubs go over pretty well, as long as they bear some inscription or trademark. And rare books can impress contacts.
The Japanese enjoy prestige brands. Be sure to bow your head as you present a gift and act modest. In predominantly Muslim Malaysia, alcohol is frowned upon; the holy month, Ramadan, is devoid of merrymaking; and gifts must be given with both hands.
China is puzzling for almost everyone. Cigarettes are still popular, but avoid watches or jewelry. These could be confused with bribes. Those gifts which suggest ``undo influence'' are treated in an unfavorable light by respectable Asians.