Saturday, January 9, 2010

Reflection on "Zoto: the Japanese Custom of Gift Giving"

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"Random thoughts for Valentine's day, 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap."

This rather cynical sentiment is uttered by Jim Carrey's character, Joel, in the opening line of the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". The idea of gift-giving holidays is received differently in the west than it is in Japan. Joel's character can be thought of as representing the typical, single American male who feels somewhat emasculated by this nationally recognized holiday that expects you to give, and be the recipient of, some sort of gift representing your affection for another. Without a significant other the American, even if he doesn't buy into the holiday itself, can feel left out due to the society he is a part of putting so much weight on the gift giving aspect of this day.

In Japan, this sentiment, I would imagine, would not be held by the majority of the population. Gift-giving in Japan, like many traditional aspects of the culture, seem to be woven tightly into the fabric of society; so much so that it may be even hard to imagine the practice not taking place. While a Japanese may still feel somewhat embarrassed to have not received chocolates on Valentine's day, but I would venture to say that he'd blame the holiday itself for his emotional state.

The west seems to have a fixation with suspecting everything to be a part of some evil corporate machine, themselves being merely the cogs keeping it going. While this metaphor may not be completely off target, capitalism thrives on this very notion, the cynicism towards the harmless, non-entities (such as holidays) is very different than that of Japan's citizens.

"You bought me a present? Why would you do such a thing? I know you think you're being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift, you've given me an obligation. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you've given me. Ah, it's no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year. Oh, I brought this on myself by being such an endearing and important part of your life..."

Above is a quote from a character named Sheldon from a sitcom called "The Big Bang Theory". Sheldon's character is a genius with an IQ that's off the charts, but has a very hard time with social relationships, reading facial expressions, and getting the hang of social situations. Because he can't understand these things intuitively, he simply feels obligated to fulfill whatever he has learned from society to be the norm. In this scene his neighbor, Penny, has informed him that she has purchased him a Christmas present. His "condition" forces him to immediately stress over his now obligatory reciprocation to Penny by means of matching the value and sentiment of her gift, which is unknown to him, to that of his gift to her.

While this example is a little far-fetched (which is what makes it funny), I'd argue that Sheldon's mind-set is more like that of Japanese person's when it comes to social obligations, reciprocity, or Giri. Unlike in American society where it is not always considered necessary to give a gift in return, in Japanese society it may be the case that, upon receiving a gift, a Japanese person feels burdened by an unavoidable obligation that has been put into motion.

In the scene, Penny's character stresses that she expects nothing in return, but Sheldon (being the Japanese in my metaphor here) can't shake the feeling of obligation to reciprocate. A Japanese person thrown into American society and given a welcoming gift may feel a deep need to reciprocate in kind in order to further establish and maintain the social relationship brought into motion by this simple gesture by the American.

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