Chances are someone at a pre-departure orientation has suggested that you bring omiyage to give to your colleagues.
Bringing gifts for 80+ people is a daunting prospect, but if you know what is expected you can avoid confusion.
Omiyage, or small gifts, are given regularly when people return from travel, the idea being that they show they were thinking about the recipients while they were away. Giving omiyage to people you are going to be interacting with regularly will endear you to them and many will go out of their way to help you in ways you would never expect.
Giving omiyage is highly recommended, though not mandatory. As you get into the school year you will notice omiyage from your coworkers frequently appears on your desk. Choosing to participate in this Japanese custom will allow you to fit into your workplace better.
You might only want to bring something for your supervisor or your principals, or even things for neighbors, other teachers, or office workers. In part, it may depend on whether you work at a single school or many, as this will determine how many recipients you will be dealing with. To get an idea of what to expect talk to your predecessor.
Good things to bring as omiyage include tea, honey/spreads/jams, individually wrapped biscuits/cookies, chocolate and candy. Bulk bags of products are perfect as they are inexpensive and you can give them to many people. Omiyage don’t have to be anything expensive or even that unique to your area (though that helps)–the gesture is more important than the contents.
Tips for Omiyage
- Bring omiyage that is edible. Recipients can enjoy it, ask you about it, and then move on.
- Bring edible snacks that are individually wrapped! Food items that are individually wrapped are most desirable, as they can be distributed easily. People will often avoid eating communal snacks/food/sweets.
- Bring omiyage that is specific to where you are from or where you have been, if possible..
- Be weather savvy – you’re coming in the summer, and will spend up to a month in training before starting classes. Although chocolates seem like a nice simple gift, they also melt.
- Be prepared to field many questions about your snack if it’s something truly unique to your city/state/country.
- Bring a large enough quantity for most if not all of your colleagues (sometimes 80+ people)!
- When laying out your gifts, make a sign saying that it’s from you and where it’s from.
- Ask your predecessor if you’re unsure how many people to plan for, and if you feel it’s too much, maybe just limit it to your base school or BOE.
- If you can find packs of inexpensive stickers from your home country bring some with you as they can come in handy in your classes as prizes (this mainly applies to elementary and junior high ALTs).
- Give inedible items (unless it’s a unique gift for a vice principal or principal)
- Bring snacks that are not individually wrapped
- Blow your budget! When it comes to gift giving in Japan, it really is the thought that counts, and stretching your wallet is not expected. Something small works perfectly well.
- Bring only enough for less than 10 people (unless you are giving them directly to a few of the staff).
- Offer snack items that can be harmful or dangerous.
The time for giving omiyage is when you first get back from your vacation, or else when you first arrive. This also makes it hard for the initial omiyage timing, because some people might see their schools in that first week, while others might not see their schools for close to a month.
The longer you let the gift sit in your apartment, the greater the chance is that you’re going to forget about giving it, and it ends up either in the trash, or that mystery item left behind. Don’t forget, but don’t feel like you need to dispense of it all on your first day!
As stated earlier, if you bring omiyage, follow the above criteria as best as possible. Ask your predecessor for more tips as well. He/she may have some insight that is either not covered here, or completely refutes the suggestions above. Every placement is different, and exceptions to the norm are possible. If you are like most of your counterparts coming to Japan, and you are finding space in your suitcase tight, don’t sweat it. Everyone here is eagerly waiting your arrival and not the arrival of the treats you bring with you.