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Japan Diary

The Burden of Gift Giving

By January 17, 2020May 9th, 2020One Comment
The Burden of Gift Giving

With Christmas come and gone a new topic has come to mind. I know weird right? Who would think that giving a gift could be a burden. In the context of Japan it can be. Strike that, in any context it can be.

The original plan was to write it from a certain perspective, and that may still happen, but just last night I received some very sad news. A colleague at one of the universities passed away suddenly of sepsis, a very strong, in this case untreatable infection.

No need to go into details other than to say he was 70 years old and just retiring this week and beginning the final chapter of his life. Seeing him just two weeks ago and hearing of his retirement plans nobody would have known that his time was so near. He was a kind, dedicated soul who fostered openness and wonderment in his classrooms.

How does this relate to the burden of gift giving? Let’s start with the fact that when you‘re gone, no longer of this earth and you cannot take anything with you. Everything you have accumulated including all those gifts are left for family to deal with. Most likely having to sift through the piles, boxes and closets of stuff to determine what to donate, throw away or keep. I have gone though this a number of times, and each time I vow to minimize what I have to lessen the burden on others when it is my time.

Now the original reason this topic came to mind has to do with Christmas. Another colleague and good friend of mine gave me and my son Christmas presents on the last class before the holidays. He is British and we have both been living in Japan many years and pretty well acculturated to Japan. I say this because in Japan the culture is once a gift is given there is a reciprocal expectation.

When I came home that day with the unopened gifts, my wife gave me a burdensome look, a look that says, “Now we have to give him a return gift.” I knew what she was thinking and replied, “I gave him some mikans (tangerines).” Unfortunately, the gifts we received were far more expensive than the measly mikans I gave him. You see, reciprocal gift giving implies that the price of the gift must be equivalent.

My son, having just gotten home from school, saw the present and we gave him the okay to open it. We opened our presents in unison. I tore open the wrapping (old habits die hard) and my son meticulously unwrapped each section so as not to tear it.

My son received …

I received …

At first glance you may all be thinking, ”It was nice of him to give such good gifts.” Yes, that may be true he was kind to give us these gifts. Here is the bah-hum dinger, I bought my son the exact Battleship board game a few months back as an alternative to his video game playing. And I already have two bike pumps. At this point things have compounded on multiple levels.

  1. We are expected to reciprocate and give gifts back.
  2. We have a choice to return the Battleship game and pump or keep them and let them become part of our accumulating stuff.

I chose a middle ground – return the Battleship game and keep the pump.

I brought the game back to my friend the next class. And here is where it got ugly. With an angry annoyed tone he said, “Why didn’t you go to the local post office and return it? I emailed you the Amazon return forms.” My reply, “It was the holidays and I didn’t have time.” Muttering under his breath, ”Well that’s the last time I give you any gifts.” I could have come back with the fact that we didn’t want any gifts I am your friend and there is no need to do anymore than that. I could explain the cultural expectation of my wife having to now return a gift. And I could have gone on to explain that maybe in this day and age it is best to either ask if there is anything we need or simply give a gift card to choose what we need. I chose to say nothing and simply let him stew in his own annoyance the rest of the day, which he did.

By now you may be getting the picture of just how much a burden gift giving can be. Maybe you are not and see if from a different perspective. I won’t go into too many details in the following list about why gift giving is burdensome, but read on and you may begin to see it differently.

Burden #2 – Consumerism – Unsustainable.

Burden #3 – Not minimalism – Check out The Minimalists for a different perspective

Burden #4 – Reciprocation – Birthdays, Christmas, Anniversaries

Burden #5 – Assuming the person wants it or already has it.

Burden #6 – Destroying the planet.

Burden #7 – Financial – Going into debt to buy gifts.

Burden #8 – Wrapping – More planet destroying waste.

Okay by this time you may thinking, ”This Allen guy sure is a crotchety old(er) guy.” Maybe, maybe not. I do have a few alternatives that may score me points on the side of not crotchety.

Alternatives – Donations on behalf of the recipient. Perishables. Items only the person needs. Gift cards.

This year I did give family members gift cards and my son only what he needed. On top of that I gave trees. Yes, trees. There is a site – a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is tree planting in parts of the world where trees are needed.

As part of their campaign you can buy trees and they will plant them in your name. And you can watch the progress on the site and help save the planet.

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