Kate Elwood discusses the differences in gift giving in Japan versus America in her latest Cultural Conundrums column. Personally, I have found that there is a much heavier burden here to come up with something:
A principal difference between Japanese and Western gift-giving is the intermeshing of gifts and commodities in Japan, as many cultural researchers have pointed out. While Americans certainly tend to aim for a balance in the value of presents given and received, and wonder how much something cost, we find it awkward when the notion of a gift as a financial exchange becomes too plain. American cultural researcher Jim Farrell observes that MasterCard's long-running "Priceless" advertising campaign responded to the fear that everything comes with a price tag. Yet as Farrell points out, "In most of these ads, the 'priceless' moment is the direct result of a series of spending decisions...Often, it seems, the 'priceless' moment has a considerable price."
True, but Americans tend to prefer to finesse that side of things. In a roundtable discussion of the Priceless campaign, Joyce King Thomas, one of the creators of the advertisements--which have appeared in 52 languages in 112 countries--noted that there is no word in Japanese corresponding to "priceless," so the English word was used in the campaign.
Generally speaking, Japan is more comfortable with the alignment of cash and care. In her fascinating book Gift-Giving in Japan: Cash, Connections, Cosmologies, anthropologist Katherine Rupp notes that a flower shop informant told her that when he makes deliveries, the recipients ask the price of the flowers so they know how much to spend in return. Monetary calculations of presents are undertaken more openly in Japan than in the West, and yet the gift transaction remains distinct from actual buying and selling, as Rupp emphasizes. Rupp asserts, "...the way sincerity is shown is precisely through money...For the gift to be considered sincere, proper, from the heart, it must be measured and calculated for the benefit of the recipient."
Some months ago, my elderly neighbor, who I'll call Mrs. Maeda, was in the hospital for several weeks. The hospital was close by, and I visited her frequently, often bringing something Mrs. Maeda had told me she'd like, such as juice or ice cream. Each time I brought her something, I ended up going home with something else, as Mrs. Maeda pressed upon me chocolates, cookies, or fruit that had been brought to her by other visitors. I was quite happy when she was finally well enough to be released from the hospital and be back home once more, but unprepared to hear a knock upon my door and have Mrs. Maeda hand over gift coupons for a fancy supermarket, totaling 10,000 yen.
I felt a little bit nonplussed, as something I had done because I genuinely care for Mrs. Maeda had been assessed monetarily. At the same time, I was well aware that Mrs. Maeda knew my kindness had not been motivated by the possibility of financial gain. Japanese friends told me to take the coupons as a token of Mrs. Maeda's gratitude, which I did, and she and I resumed our usual neighborly relationship of casually sharing cookies and other home-cooked dishes with each other.
Then, a few weeks later, I had a party for some of my students at my home. Many arrived together in small groups, bringing a joint present of sweets or wine. One student--I'll call him Keisuke--however, had arrived late, coming straight from his part-time job. I didn't even notice that Keisuke hadn't brought anything, but as he was leaving, he apologized for coming empty-handed, pulled out his wallet, and attempted to give me some money. I didn't accept it, telling him I was just happy he was able to come to the party. While Keisuke's well-intentioned action was perhaps a bit uncouth, I had also received an earlier party-money suggestion from a socially sophisticated woman who had attended several parties at my home. She told me that my parties were elaborate and that I should charge guests an attendance fee.
I mentioned my refined friend's proposal to some American friends who, like me, could not really imagine exacting payment for this kind of friendly get-together, feeling that to do so would cheapen the occasion. And yet, of course, parties do require money, and there is no reason that straightforwardly acknowledging this should diminish the event. In speaking of presents, a common saying is "It's the thought that counts." Thinking about the thought, as it were, it is perhaps valid to say that receiving some direct recompense would be more efficient than working one's way through all the bottles of wine and boxes of cookies left over from the party (though not necessarily as much fun!).