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Gift Giving in Japan: Sad, Happy, Overjoyed? Have a Towel

It’s no secret that Japan loves gifts. Whenever a co-worker returns from a holiday or business trip, they’ll bring you something small from the region. Other gifts are often exchanged when visiting a home, celebrating a festival, or when you simply haven’t seen someone in a while.

But what about when you don’t know the person that well? What’s a good housewarming gift for your neighbor or when you want to apologize? Well, then you’d give them a towel of course! What else?

If you’re not from Japan, a towel may not be what first comes to mind, so let’s learn more about this cultural phenomenon.

Why towels?

Photo: iStock/ GOLFXStrong connections in your towel and in life.

There is a good reason for giving towels as a gift. Towels are made by weaving threads together, which makes them a good omen for lasting relationships.

With that in mind, towels are also considered a nice wedding gift, as they are reminiscent of the “Red Thread of Fate” that connects two destined lovers. Money is usually given to newlyweds in Japan, rather than material gifts, so a towel set is a nice extra if you want to give them something physical, too.

Towels are also used to help make you clean, so they are associated with the idea of ridding your life of unpleasantness or anything unwanted. Many also think of towels as the embodiment of “this too shall pass.”

When are towels given?

Photo: iStock/ T. PleydellA welcome addition to the baby bag.

We’ve already mentioned that towels are sometimes given to newlyweds, but they’re a good go-to gift for most situations. A towel is a good choice for the birth of a baby, as it represents strong bonds, but is also just a practical present.

Some also give towels as a mid-year or year-end gift to those they feel indebted for their help. On the line of washing away bad feelings, towels are a popular gift for those hospitalized or as a thank you for someone who visited you in the hospital.

When are towels not given?

Photo: iStock/ heloviDon’t do it!

In most situations, your giftee will likely be pleased with a fluffy new towel, but there are two situations to remember where towels aren’t a good idea.

White towels at weddings

Your first thought for a wedding towel gift might be a white one, reflecting the pure white of the bride’s dress, but that’s one to avoid! For many, a white towel is reminiscent of the cloth that covers the faces of the deceased at funerals. This is essentially the opposite of the feeling of a new life started together, so it’s best to choose something colorful instead.

Small towels for your boss

When gifting small cloths or pieces of fabric that you can wear or carry, like a handkerchief, it tends to carry the meaning of “work hard” or “try your best”. So giving a small towel to your boss or someone above you at work can be considered rude. So I guess it’s go big or go home!

Other than those two situations though, if you’re ever at a loss for what to gift someone in Japan, a towel is probably your best bet.

Towels as souvenirs

A one of a kind souvenir for friends back home.

So far, we’ve just been talking about bath towels. But if you want something special to gift people back home from Japan, a large towel they have to fit in their suitcase doesn’t make much sense. Not to worry, Japan has an abundance of smaller, more decorative towels too!

Public bathrooms in Japan often don’t have hand dryers or paper towels, so many people carry their own small hand towels. Gift shops at any attraction are almost certain to have some memorable ones, so grab one for your friend at the zoo, the Ghibli Museum or anywhere.

Another, more decorative type of “towel” is the tenugui. These used to have more practical uses, but are now widely sold for decorative purposes, with interesting patterns or designs.

Other common gifts in Japan

Photo: iStock/ kazoka30Get to know someone with a bottle of sake.

Food and alcohol are fairly common gifts in Japan. If you visit somewhere new, bringing back a small, edible souvenir representative of the region is always a winner. When giving gifts for special occasions, sake is a good choice because it means “let’s drink together,” meaning you want to spend time with that person. Mugs and cups are also usually well-received and don’t have any bad connotations.

Have you ever been given a surprising gift in Japan? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!



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