In Tokyo, You Need a Gift for Giving


By Brian_Bremner Anyone who has lived in Japan has probably brushed up against this culture's elaborate gift-giving etiquette. Japan in many ways is a kind of giant favor bank. Certain rules must be heeded, and it all speaks volumes about the extraordinary sense of social obligation and status felt by ordinary Japanese. Every small act of generosity must later be paid back in kind. Fail that, and you're likely to be thought of as boorish, uncultured, and rude.

I'm no cultural anthropologist, so I won't bore you with my theories on why this is so. The gift-giving exchanges linked to imported Western holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day are hardly worth mentioning. Nor are the uniquely Japanese ones, such as the midyear chugen and yearend seibo gift-swapping sessions between salarymen and their superiors. And in polite society, the idea of gifts for the sick or victims of misfortune (mimai), or in honor of happy developments like a big promotion (shugi) is noble, and such extensions are genuinely kind interactions.

QUIET EXTORTION? But it's another set of gift-giving rituals in Japan that I have huge trouble understanding. These involve cash gifts to landowners, highly sought-after piano teachers, lawyers, and doctors. The way the Japanese favor bank works in these transactions is different. The fiction is that you're expressing thanks for some special favor, or for a legal consultation, or a-hard-to-get appointment with a noted brain surgeon.

To me, though, what you're really doing in these situations is, at best, buying access. At worst, you're paying a quiet form of extortion. This cuts against the grain of a Japan that has always been proud of its national health scheme, its unrivaled income equality, and its sheer egalitarianism, especially when contrasted with the dog-eat-dog social arrangements and economic model of the U.S.

We might as well start with Japanese landlords. If you want to rent a place in Tokyo, expect to pay the usual assortment of cleaning deposits and several months' rent upfront. Though that can run into the thousands of dollars, it has a certain logic. The guy who owns your flat wants some cash in hand should you trash the place or suddenly bolt for a new life in Bali. Granted, you would do the same in many a large city -- though you'd be surprised how little you can expect to get back when your lease expires.

What I don't get is the whole notion of reikin -- key money. Actually, a more American translation might be "kiss off and say goodbye money." Usually, this involves two or three months' rent as a token of your humble appreciation for letting a landlord charge you an exorbitant rent for a cramped apartment in Tokyo. You pay it, and that's pretty much it.

YOU'RE WELCOME. O.K., let's say that landlords are a special breed, not entirely representative of the Japanese at their best. And yes, people have been known to fork over big money in New York City to someone who merely tips them off about a possibly available apartment. But Japan also has shiyarei -- "thank-you money." And it goes to physicians for, say, taking on your case or perhaps bumping you ahead of the line for a much-needed CAT scan or operation.

Best I can tell from conversations with my Japanese friends, you rarely find patients forking over yen for routine treatments. The Japanese health-care system may have its faults, but by and large, its professionals are pretty responsive, and the quality of care isn't bad for the usual stuff. But what if you or a loved one gets really sick or confronts a life-threatening illness, the sort where the top specialists can make all the difference in the world?

It's true that in the U.S., having contacts in the medical establishment is extremely helpful in times of crisis. Same here. But I find it pretty outrageous that in some instances, the custom is to fork over a few thousand bucks upfront -- scarcely reimbursable from your insurance company -- to get a doctor interested in taking on your case.

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE. And here's another mind-blower. My wife and I have been spending our weekends looking at private schools for our daughter, Marie, who enters primary school next year. My jaw just about dropped when my wife informed me that we should expect to pay a one-time $4,000 thank-you fee should our little one pass the entrance exam.

That's on top of the first year of tuition, mind you. As I understand it, this is a common practice at private schools in Japan. I will say this school happens to be Catholic, and I have some doubts whether my "thank-you money" will find its way to a needy charity. Of course, I could be wrong. I hope so.

So, landlords, docs, and private schools have a good thing going here. What's the point? Well, Japan may like to pretend everyone is equal, but when it comes to pretty critical junctures -- finding affordable housing or getting the best medical attention and education -- certain additional costs are embedded into the system. In that sense, a subtle barrier exists, defined by money, not really by need or merit.

NOT SO EQUAL. You might ask why this is different from having a well-connected friend make a phone call on your behalf to get you an appointment with a top surgeon who's booked for months. In both cases, you're making sure that you have an advantage over someone else. But it's different when it's cold, hard cash that gives you the leg up.

In other words, even in proudly egalitarian Japan, it's better to be rich or connected or both than it is to be poor. And having the resources to -- depending on your point of view -- extend thanks or pay off someone you need in a pinch -- matters greatly in Japan. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online


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