When to give gifts and tip in Japan
For foreigners new to Japan, guidance toward tipping is usually pretty straightforward: You don’t tip in Japan.
While this is a good general rule, the tipping situation in Japan is a bit more complex than that. There are a few circumstances when it is appropriate or expected to provide either a tip or some form of extra compensation in the form of gifts or treats. Travelers should keep in mind that, like in the U.S., local customs can change from prefecture to prefecture and there is no set-in-stone rule on tipping or compensation, just general guidelines. But remember, if you’re at an on-base restaurant, you are expected to tip.
When to tip
It’s common for Japanese staying at Ryokans (Japanese-style hotels) to give a tip to the staff in advance of the service they provide. This is seen as providing your gratitude in advance for the service the staff will provide. This is known as “kokoroduke” and should be somewhere around 1,000 or 2,000 yen. These tips should be provided in a somewhat discrete manner. The currency should be placed in some sort of paper or envelop and provided to the hotel staff after you are escorted to your room. If you’re staying at a high end western style hotel, it’s acceptable to leave some coins underneath your pillow after you check out of the room. But it’s not expected.
Other situations where you might tip include receiving a massage at a spa or having someone bring bags to your room. Additionally, if find yourself taking a taxi and the bill comes to somewhere around 800 or so yen, it’s not uncommon to hand the drive a 1,000 yen note and tell them to keep the change. Again, this is not expected, by it is acceptable. However, if your bill ever lists something similar to a “service fee” then a tip has already been calculated into your bill. If you’re ever in doubt, simply do not tip.
Tips in Japan are seen as more of an appreciation for service, unlike the U.S. where tips are often given to compensate workers for low wages.
Giving gifts or expressing gratitude
Americans affiliated with the military often have questions regarding providing gifts or tokens of gratitude to Japanese people. The most common examples are usually neighbors, or workers from the Japanese moving companies who move household goods to or from the base. In these situations, it is acceptable to provide some sort of gift or treat; but providing money would be a social faux pas.
Keep in mind that while Japanese do appreciate gifts or treats from a foreigner’s homeland, you should generally provide something that will go along with the Japanese taste pallet. For example, sugary lemonade is a common drink for Americans during the summertime. Japanese, however, typically do not like things containing a lot of sugar.
In the case of Japanese movers, leaving a tray of chocolates or cookies and some soft drinks or bottles of water would be acceptable and appreciated. If the weather is cold outside, coffee would also be a good treat. In the case of trying to give a gift someone like a Japanese neighbor, good ideas include American beer (which is much cheaper on base) or packages of smoked salmon (which are also sold on base at a far cheaper price). Another good idea is to check out the prices of certain items at Japanese grocery stores. Sometimes, especially during shortages, certain food items may be two, three or even four times as much off base as compared to on base. A Japanese person would certainly accept a gift of something, such as butter for example, if it is currently very expensive at the local grocery store. Keep your gifts simple and thoughtful and they will be well received no matter what you decide on.
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