That this is an art is reflected by the phrase ‘it’s the thought that counts’. Originally this phrase was a genuine expression of appreciation for the artful thought that inspired the gift – the consideration of the other in the choice of gift was more important than the gift itself. In our cynical age, it is now often used as a sarcastic comment on the perceived inadequacy of the gift. In the midst of expedient consumerism, the thought that counts is as rare, nearly extinct, as the white Beluga whales at Yokohama’s Hakkeijima aquarium.
The appropriateness of the gift and the delicate balance of gift-giving is nowhere more finely expressed than in Japanese culture. Presentation can be seen to be as important as the gift itself. Traditionally, gifts were hand delivered by servants carrying beautiful lacquer trays covered with embroidered silk cloths. These cloths, fukusa, were designed with motifs suitable to the occasion – pine and cranes for weddings, the treasure ship of the gods of good fortune for New Year- and may be said to be the precursor for gift cards.
And in recognition of the reciprocity of personal relationships, there is a tradition of a return gift, ‘outsuri’. There is a saying in Japan ‘that it is only a beggar who receives a gift without giving anything in return’. The nuances of social status and the intricacies of interpersonal relations come into play in selecting both initial and return gift. Something too expensive in either case could cause a loss of face and severely strain the friendship. Gift giving is also an essential part of doing business in Japan, one that can be fraught with underlying complications.