Ochugen and Oseibo
One of Japan’s unique food-related traditions involves the twice-yearly rites of gift-giving. From early to mid-July, it had traditionally been the custom to send gifts to one’s parents; this practice later extended to include one’s broader relations as well. These presents are called Ochugen.
Another long-held tradition in December also called for gift-giving, but these were directed at those to whom some gratitude was owed. These year-end gifts are referred to as Oseibo.
Both customs have evolved considerably through the years, and today both Ochugen and Oseibo gifts are sent to family as well as business acquaintances and superiors—anyone to whom some debt of thanks is owed. These practices became more widespread in the late nineteenth century.
Ochugen and Oseibo can be many things, but they usually involve beautifully packaged sets of practical staples such as cooking oil, soy sauce or soap. Food and beverages are always a popular choice, and can include freshly caught seafood direct from the docks, farm-fresh fruits, as well as confectionery, meats, juices or beer. During the summer, it’s common to receive foods that evoke a sense of coolness, such as somen (thin wheat noodles) and the seasonal confectionery mizu-yokan, a jellied dessert made of red bean paste and sugar.
In recent years, another option has been to send gift catalogues so that recipients may make their own selection. Gift-givers determine the appropriate price range for their gift, based on how much appreciation they wish to show the recipient: most gifts are priced from 3,000-5,000 yen (US$30.00-50.00).
Department stores and major supermarkets set aside dedicated space about one month before the two gift seasons, where customers may view samples and consult with store clerks as they make their selections; others may choose to make their purchases via the Internet.
Traditionally, those giving Oseibo or Ochugen would wrap and carry their gifts to each recipient’s house and deliver their best wishes in person. Now, everyone relies on the ever-efficient stores to deliver these offerings directly. Should one choose to send gifts only once a year, they are sent in December to express gratitude for the entire year.