Gift giving is rooted in the foundation of Japanese culture. Yes, they celebrate customary gift giving holidays, but that is only the beginning. When we moved into our apartment, the culture expected us to give presents to our neighbors and the proprietor. When traveling, people expect you to bring back small gifts (“omiyage”) for friends and family. Often these treats consist of ingredients famous in the area of travel. The presentation of the gift also matters.
Events such as weddings add further obligations. Wedding guests traditionally give money, which typically consists of hundreds of dollars of an odd amount (10,000 yen, 30,000 yen, etc). The catch is the expectation of returning half. Traditionally, when the couple honeymoons, they bring back a souvenir for each person that costs half the amount their gift. At some modern weddings, guests choose an item from a catalog as a return gift.
Now, what does this mean for a Gift so incredible and costly that people cannot repay? When Japanese people hear that God has given them a gift, they understand the term differently than Americans. Yet they immediately understand that such a great gift requires an action in return. They may better understand Paul’s explanation that the purpose of the gift of salvation is accomplishing good works (Eph 2:8-10). The tricky part stems from doing the good works out of gratitude and love, rather than obligation.