Gift Giving Instead of Tipping in Japan
One of my favorite things about living in Japan is the way that often the simple yet thoughtful thing is valued over the sometimes easier way to buy yourself out of a problem.
We often get asked by guests about tipping culture, and being born and raised in the United States this was just an assumed part of life that I took for granted until landing in Japan for the first time. It was here that I saw the convention, which now seems just overly confusing, of a game of guessing a percentage of added fee to each transaction based on performance of front-end staff completely flipped on its head.
So what exactly is the way to go about tipping in Japan? Do Japanese people tip at all?
The Short Answer: No Tipping, The Long Answer: Read the Room
In short, you in no way or any situation will be asked nor expected to leave a monetary tip or pay beyond your bill. In fact, if you try to leave some money behind at a restaurant on the table you are more likely to be chased out the door by a staff member returning it to you.
Further, as I have experienced before, if you try to tell say a restaurant staff to, “keep the change” you will likely be met with just plain confusion and an outstretched hand returning your change until you take it.
Now, that’s not to say that some places might not put out a “tip jar” of sorts. You are increasingly seeing these in cafes, especially more foreign facing or foreign owned ones. But again, you should feel zero obligation as this is by far against the norm and not culturally considered a custom in Japan.
But What If I Just Had The Best Meal/Stay Of My Life, Or I Just Like Being Generous?
If you want to show your gratitude some kind words go a long way in Japan and are a great place to start! Nothing say I am happy to visit your country than knowing your please and thank you’s and a few ways to tell people you enjoyed your time together!
“___ Kudasai” – means “____ please”, as in “mizu kudasai”, meaning “water please”
“Arigatou” – means “thank you”
“Oishi-katta” – means “It was delicious”
“Tanoshi-katta” – means “it was fun/I had a good time”
“Honto-ni” – means “really”, and can be put in front of almost anything to make it more sincere
“Omakase” – for the adventurous eaters this phrase roughly translates to “as the Chef recommends” and entrusts your meal to the chef to decide what is the best they have to offer at the restaurant. It is most commonly used in sushi restaurants to ask for the “chef special” and is a great way to try new things. That being said, the price tag is at the discretion of the restaurant as you are ordering off-menu, so keep that in mind when ordering.
“Osusume” – means “recommendation”, as in “what do you recommend?” This is a great one for the less bold yet still curious. As it is just a recommendation you can still opt out should you not be interested in the offer, but it also gives you an idea of what is the top choice of the establishment.
Gift Giving in Japan
Beyond that Japan has a very strong culture of gift giving. Each time you walk through a train station, shrine, or department store you will find gift shops packed full of local foods, drinks, crafts, and more. These “omiyage” or souvenirs are almost a must for locals to bring back from their travels.
It is quite common that if someone from Tokyo goes on say a business trip Kyoto that they would almost feel compelled to bring back some local treat to share with their family and coworkers at the office. It is because of this that you see these gift shops nearby every train station and major center of town.
Flipping the Gift Giving On Its Head
As a traveler visiting Japan, you can take this opportunity to “Do as the Romans”, or in this case Japanese, and instead of tipping with money, instead tip with small gifts!
As stated before, most in Japan will politely and sternly refuse any monitary tip you extend to them. However, a gift or “Pu-re-sen-to” (present) is almost always welcomed with open arms and highly valued.
It need not be big or expensive, as the average omiyage souvenir in Japan is often just small crackers or sweets.
So, for example if you are from a town in the US that is famous for your local sports team, you could bring a small charm or postcard of the area to gift to those along your travels as a thank you gift.
Say you are from Canada or a northern part of the US, perhaps some small maple candies?
You are from LA or NYC, maybe a small keychain or postcard with Hollywood or I Love NY?
There are many more creative options too, but this gives you a sense of what size works.
Summing Things Up
So in summary, in Japan give gifts not money. Size/value doesn’t matter, the act of giving and thinking of bringing something to share with those you meet is the value itself.
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