Winter tale: Do oseibo have a future?

December 4th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Can I help you?: Matsuzakaya's oseibo section

Can I help you?: Matsuzakaya’s oseibo section

Winter gifts, or oseibo, are one of those Japanese customs that few Western residents of Japan get behind, no matter how assimilated they think they are. The basic idea may contradict principles many of us grew up with. Though the gifts are ostensibly thank-you gestures to people who have helped you during the past year, the fact that they tend to be given to people who are above you in social station or from whom you have something to gain in terms of business or education opportunities makes some people uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but the oseibo tradition seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift that is influenced by more than just current economic realities. A reporter for the Asahi Shimbun wrote a short essay about how it seems that suddenly oseibo counters in supermarkets are becoming quite busy. Normally, oseibo sales of everything from fine fish roe to laundry detergents are the bailiwick of department stores. In fact, the department store you buy your gift from says more about your sincerity as a gift-giver than the gift itself. The more reputable the depato, the more impressed the recipient is, which is why the outside wrapping paper is probably the most important part of the gift.

The writer suggests it may be a generational thing. Older people still think you should buy oseibo from department stores, but younger consumers are more practical, whether they’re giving or receiving.

Apparently, department stores are concerned about this sea change in gift-giving propriety, as they should be. Department stores have been losing relevance as retail entities since the end of the late ’80s bubble era. Oseibo is one of the last specialty retail sectors they could claim as their own, and now supermarkets and discount stores have even grabbed a piece of that pie. What to do?

According to a different article in the Asahi, many of the larger department stores are going green with their oseibo. Takashimaya in Nihonbashi sells organic meats, soy sauce, miso, coffee, etc., and has seen a 36 percent increase in sales over the same period last year as a result. But if you’re going to give the gift of environmental consciousness and physical well-being then you have to be pure about it. So the supermarket chain Aeon goes one better and includes carbon footprint data with their oseibo, which indicates how much CO2 is emitted through the production and transport of that particular gift. There’s even a specialty Internet retail concern called Ecodepa Japan that sells only ecologically responsible gifts. Their sales have doubled since 2005.

But I would think even that isn’t enough. If you purchase a gift from Keikyu department store in Yokohama, they will actually offset the carbon produced by that gift. So if you’re going that far then you really should cut to the bone: Do away with the wrapping paper and containers altogether and reduce the energy for transporting the gift to its barest minimum.

Eventually, it will come to this: You send a brief note saying that your winter gift is the pleasant thought that you did not produce anything environmentally harmful by purchasing a material gift. You’re welcome.

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One Response

  1. oseibo is very good for people and typical example of Japanese kindness.

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