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Tea Leaves

In Japan, giving gifts can mean giving problems

Annual largesse stimulates social networking but fails to help the needy

Fruit is a popular item to send to friends and acquaintances during Japan's oseibo gift-giving season. (Photo by Michiyo Nakamoto).

When the doorbell rang for the third time on a chilly day in early December, I had an inkling it would be the deliveryman with yet another package. After all, it was the annual winter gift-giving season known as oseibo in Japan.

Every year in December people send oseibo gifts to business associates, customers and, in some cases, friends, to thank them for their friendship that year. The practice has a summer equivalent in July, known as ochugen, and in both cases the gifts usually consist of consumables, particularly expensive foods, such as baskets of fancy fruit, marinated fish filets or nori (edible seaweed).

Like Christmas, these customs bring people together. Unlike Christmas, though, the gifts are chosen somewhat randomly, without much consideration for the recipient's tastes or personal needs. Every oseibo and ochugen season we end up with much more food and drink than the two people in our household can consume before the various use-by dates. We also receive a lot of food we do not eat, such as chunks of unappetizing ham or processed meat.

This past oseibo season our fridge and pantry were filled with 24 large fillets of marinated fish, 30 apples, 26 large citrus fruits, two baskets of various exotic fruits, two boxes filled with three different types of processed meat, several packages of top-quality nori, boxes of small cakes, five different kinds of Japanese sweets, a box of French macarons, and 16 cans of soup.

We are by no means exceptional in the amount of oseibo we receive; a friend once confided that the oseibo sent to her household filled an entire room.

Taking delivery of all this food was all the more frustrating this year because I knew that more families than ever in Japan -- as elsewhere -- were having difficulty feeding themselves adequately amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Even before COVID-19, many households in Japan, particularly those with single-parents, struggled to put enough food on the table.

Although Japan is in the top third of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of average family incomes, 16% of the population were living in relative income poverty in 2018, or with disposable income below 50% of the national median, according to the OECD.

Child poverty in Japan, at 13.7%, is slightly higher than the OECD average of 12.4%. A survey conducted in 2017 by Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that 19.4% of single-parent households with two generations living together experienced a shortage of food. Meanwhile, as much as 27.6 million tons of food was thrown out across the country in 2016, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Food waste is by no means a problem specific to Japan. America generated even more food waste than Japan -- 40.7 million tons in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But that is not surprising given that its population of 331.9 million is more than double Japan's 126 million.

Still, oseibo or ochugen are not necessarily a source of food waste. While I grumble about the time and effort required to handle the sudden overload of food and drink, we somehow manage to give away most of what we cannot consume ourselves.

Some of the sweets and juice sent to us as oseibo. (Photo by Michiyo Nakamoto).

If practiced in moderation, these annual giving rituals can be pleasant ways for people to stay in touch. What is more, the practice of sending gifts twice a year has huge economic benefits. The oseibo market is estimated to have generated 910 billion yen ($8.8 billion) in retail sales in 2019, while the summer ochugen market is believed to have generated 730 billion yen, according to the Yano Research Institute.

But there is clearly a massive misallocation of food, which is exacerbated by the Japanese love of gift-giving. Those at the receiving end of generous oseibo and ochugen presents are likely to have more than enough food at their disposal while those in need continue to go hungry. That equation simple does not add up.

Food banks in their current form are not the solution, since most of those in Japan are relatively small operations that are hard-pressed to take on bigger loads than they already have.

This year, Japanese food banks have seen a rise in donations from producers unable to sell their inventory amid the pandemic, but have not been able to take advantage of this bounty because of lack of storage space and a decline in volunteers stemming from COVID-19 fears. Our local food bank has so many rules about what it will accept that most of our oseibo gifts do not qualify.

Gift-giving is a cherished custom firmly grounded in Japanese society. It provides a means of social networking and stimulates economic activity in the process. But what Japan needs now are systems and infrastructure that could channel that gift-giving spirit toward providing for the needy as well; in other words, a real "giving spirit."

Michiyo Nakamoto is a Tokyo-based writer

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