Love My Gift, Love Me Or Is It Love Me, Love My Gift: a Study of the Cultural Construction of Romantic Gift Giving Among Japanese Couples

ABSTRACT - While romantic gift-giving in Japan possesses its own flavor and history, little research has been done on this topic to date. We conducted a phenomenological, written protocol study of gender differences in romantic gift-giving and receiving experiences among Japanese consumers. On a comparative basis, we find both similarities and dissimilarities in themes between our results and those reported previously with respect to Western cultures. In the end, we consider what Japanese men and women believe constitutes the Aperfect romantic gift@ experience.


Yuko Minowa and Stephen J. Gould (1999) ,"Love My Gift, Love Me Or Is It Love Me, Love My Gift: a Study of the Cultural Construction of Romantic Gift Giving Among Japanese Couples", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 119-124.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 119-124


Yuko Minowa, Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York


While romantic gift-giving in Japan possesses its own flavor and history, little research has been done on this topic to date. We conducted a phenomenological, written protocol study of gender differences in romantic gift-giving and receiving experiences among Japanese consumers. On a comparative basis, we find both similarities and dissimilarities in themes between our results and those reported previously with respect to Western cultures. In the end, we consider what Japanese men and women believe constitutes the "perfect romantic gift" experience.


When Kokinshu, a Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, was compiled around 905 A.D. in Japan, 360 out of 1100 poems (or over the one third) selected for the anthology were written on the topic of love (Rodd 1996). Some love poems took the form of exchange between a man and a woman. This romantic practice was called zoutou (Daijirin Dictonary 1988, p. 1391), which literally means "present-and-reply." In contemporary Japanese, zoutou is the very word for gift-giving. However, this medieval romantic flavor was lost somewhere in history, and today zoutou specifically refers to the culturally-prescribed, gift-giving practice which is based on what Johnson (1974) calls balanced reciprocity.

What happened with romantic exchange? Little is known about this practice and especially the personal, emotional experiences involving gift giving and receiving among couples in Japan. Do Japanese men and women feel the same way in gift giving and receiving processes? Does this process involve a self-serving reciprocal exchange or an expression of altruistic romantic feeling? In the current paper, following the literature review, we explore gender differences in gift-giving and receiving among couples in Japan based on the episodic examples provided by forty Japanese men and women.


Gift-giving is multidimensional. It can vary from formal ritual to individuals’ spontaneous acts, and from utility-driven economic exchange to postmodern symbolic consumer behavior (Otnes and Beltramini 1996). A number of consumer researchers have investigated the subject by integrating theories from anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics (e.g., Belk 1979; Sherry 1983). Gift-giving and receiving experiences among couples and those of the opposite sex have been studied from various perspectives as well. Rynning (1989) examined the effects of asymmetric, symbolic meaning of the gift item (affective value attached to the gift), and occasion for the gift-giving. Gould and Weil (1991) investigated the roles of gift-giving (i.e., instrumental vs. expressive functions) between opposite-sex friends and same-sex friends. Belk and Coon (1993) divided gift giving among couples into three models of giving: (1) economic exchange, (2) social exchange, and (3) agapic (romantic) love. Their study broadened the realm of gift giving research by adding selfless romantic giving to the exchange paradigm. Belk (1996) further examined "the perfect gift" as an expression of the selfless, altruistic love of the giver. He described six characteristics of the perfect gift: sacrifice, altruism, luxury, appropriateness, surprise, and delight. Such a gift defines gift giving and receiving ideals among couples. Areni et al. (1998) analyzed gift-giving and receiving episodes in the U.S. and Europe. Their study found that American men report more frequent giving while European men and women from both continents tend to remember receiving better than giving.

Studies of Japanese gift-giving largely evolved in the area of anthropology. Their culturally framed value-system approach has focused mainly on its traditional, giri-based, reciprocal gift-exchange practice (Befu 1968; Benedict 1946; Johnson 1974). The Japanese word giri means "a moral imperative to perform one’s duties toward other members of one’s group" (Befu 1968, p. 450), and it requires reciprocation. Traditional gift-exchange is a part of such moral obligations and is called zoutou. It involves both family-based, collective obligations and individually-based, personal obligations. While modern urbanites are less concerned with such empty formality, they nevertheless observe a set of zoutou customs, including oseibo (year-end gifts), ochuugen (mid-year gifts), and omiyage (souvenir brought back from travel) that may be purchased to fulfill their obligation (Witkowski and Yamamoto 1991).

Psychologists, on the other hand, have probed the significance of gift-exchange rituals in Japan based on an individually-provoked motivational approach (Morsbach 1977). Beatty et al. (1993) studied the linkages between personal values and gift-giving behaviors for U.S. and Japanese consumers. Green and Alden (1988) questioned the basic functional equivalence of giftexchange processes between U.S. and Japanese consumers by contrasting their self-concepts.

However, none of these studies carefully classifies gifts into two categories commonly used in Japan. In this regard, individually-based and/or spontaneous gift-giving that functions to express personal affect is not called zoutou, but is called purezento borrowing an English word, present. A purezento is given or exchanged among people involved in intimate relationships. Major purezento occasions include birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas. These are not traditional Japanese gift-giving occasions but are commercially promoted constructions. Here, we investigate purezento for its effect on the giving and receiving of gifts among Japanese couples.


In order to explore gift-giving and receiving experiences among Japanese couples, a written protocol involving four open-ended questions was used to elicit narrative type responses (Bogdan and Taylor 1975; Gould 1997; Helgeson 1994). The data resulting from such protocols has been characterized by Rook (1987) as being phenomenological with regard to its revelatory nature. He also positioned the data yielded as being somewhere in the middle of a continuum between fixed-format surveys and in-depth interviews in terms of the quantity of data collected.

Through 2 correspondents in Japan, we administered the questionnaire to a conveniently selected group of 40 people in greater Tokyo who had agreed to participate in the research. Of these 15 were male and 25 female. Their occupations varied from housewives to white-collar and blue-collar employees of large and small corporations and self-employed business owners. They ranged in age from 25 to 69, where the mean age was 38 and the median age was 35. Seventeen respondents were married. The length of the current relationship varied between 0 and 35 years with a mean of 11 years. Those who did not have an ongoing relationship at the time of survey described episodes from a past relationship.

The four questions asked the respondents to describe their most recent and the most memorable gift-giving and -receiving experiences to and from their husband (wife) or boy (girl) friend. These were first generated by the authors in English and then translated into Japanese by one of the authors who is a native speaker of Japanese. The words, "husband (wife)," became spouse or haiguusha in Japanese, which better fit the mode of the Japanese writing in the questionnaire. The words, "boy friend (girl friend)," became "lover" or koibito in Japanese. The Japanese use this word to signify an unmarried mate with a romantic relationship. Because of its links to personal affect, the word purezento was used for the word gift instead of zoutou. Then the questionnaire was back-translated into English by another native Japanese who had lived in England for two years and was attending a graduate business school in the United States at the time of this research. The final version of the questionnaire was typed in Japanese word processing software and proofread by four other native Japanese.


In analyzing gift-giving episodes, we were guided by a general framework which consists of gift occasion, gift items, reasons for selection, and strategies to gratify both or either the partner and/or oneself. Within this framework, we uncovered a number of emergent themes in giving and receiving experiences and analyzed gender differences.

Males’ Giving Experiences

Past studies indicate women are more involved in gift exchange in general (Otnes et al. 1993), and Christmas gift in particular (Fischer and Arnold 1990). Japanese seem to share a similarity in this regard. Japanese men in general are reluctant when it comes to shopping and buying gifts. These characteristics are probably attributable to their lack of knowledge regarding what would please their partners. Four out of 15 male respondents remarked that their most recent gift-giving involved an inquiry with their partners; they asked what their female partners wanted first and bought the exact item. One male writes that this is not a poor strategy because he thinks that asking his partner "actually pleases [her] even more, and because a gift-buying occasion and selecting the right gift is agonizing" (M 30).

However, the theme that appears in the greatest frequency in the males' most memorable giving episodes is surprise, followed by embarrassment, neither of which occurs in even a single female's giving episode. Areni et al. (1998) support the idea that gift exchange is more memorable and enjoyable when it is given as a surprise because the gift is unexpected. A surprise gift seems to be especially important among singles. One male considered it "more exciting and interesting" (M 29) than asking what his partner wants. Another married male respondent recalled an incident that happened during the dating period, when he attempted to surprise his partner:

She sounded like she was interested in a bracelet. I walked casually towards stores that sold bracelets and let her indicate what sort of bracelet she liked. When she pointed to one bracelet and said 'I like that one,' I gave a quick glance and said 'Ah, one like that?= with the tone of a bit of indifference and a bit of ridicule in my voice and quickly moved away to the next store. The following day, I rushed to return to the store, bought the bracelet, and gave it to her. [M 37]

He was indeed successful in surprising her although he gave her the wrong item; what she wanted was the one next to the bracelet he bought.

Also, a surprise gift is used strategically to reconcile the relationship after a quarrel. One male who bought a necklace that matched the partner's ring remarked that "the strategy [of giving a gift] was splendidly successful. [He] was impressed by the effectiveness of an unexpected gift." He even wondered "whether there would have been a reconciliation without the gift..." (M 30).

A surprise is also enhanced by combining other gift-giving strategies, such as planning everything to a tee and also secrecy/deception, which were discussed by Areni et al. (1988). One male prepared such a gift for his partner on Christmas:

I gave her a set of cosmetics. She was delighted. Then, ...I gave her a cake that I had been hiding. She appeared very surprised. When she tried to prepare for serving the cake and making tea for us, I held out a bottle of champagne. She seemed surprised by that too. Then, when she tried to take out glasses from the cabinet, I held out champagne glasses. She was very impressed and moved with the series of surprises that I carefully planned to present to her. [M 25]

Therefore, he concluded that"surprise [was] an important factor for a present."

Another theme that appeared in males' episodes is embarrassment. What is memorable about the gift-giving experience for some males is that they are very embarrassed to even enter a store, to shop around, and to buy a gift for a woman. One male who had made up his mind as to what to buy (i.e., a pair of earrings) before going to a store, recalled that "it took some time to enter the store ... and that ... [he] was embarrassed and constantly blushed while selecting which one to buy" (M 38). Given the value system and distinctive gender roles reminiscent of feudal Japan, it is not surprising that male partners do not feel comfortable about shopping for women's gifts. It is not considered as an ideal masculine behavior to please a woman with material goods (Benedict 1946). This old fashioned view is more prevalent among older couples than younger ones. While some female partners hopelessly give up, others, such as this middle-aged female, resent their partners:

...When my birthday is coming or when I want a present, I end up saying to [my husband] 'I want this...' by showing him a catalog. I wish, even once in my life, he would please me so I could leap for joy ,just like in a TV commercial, by presenting a gift that he held behind his back and saying 'here is a gift for you' or 'happy birthday.' [F 45]

For some males, gifts are perceived as an assurance of relationship. One male recalls:

Frankly, [the most memorable gift] was an engagement ring. This was the most expensive gift I ever gave to her ... I remember that I thought, by buying and giving this ring, 'Ah, I can finally, actually marry her ...' feeling exhilarated and deeply committed. [M 35]

Another male, who gets a headache when he starts thinking about what to get for his wife, admits"...such yearly headaching problems may not be a bad thing in order to strengthen the family tie" (M 69).

Females' Giving Experiences

The Japanese females in our sample displayed two prominent characteristics in their gift-giving experiences. One is the practicality of the gift item that they described as the most recent gift that they gave to their partners. Some episodes indicate that females chose clothes, sweaters or vests as regular gifts because they liked them. One confessed that "[the pretty shirt] struck [her] rather than [her husband] at a look and [she] bought it" (F 29). Married females especially seem to play multiple sex roles in gift-giving occasions: a fashion watch dog of her husband, a comptroller of the household budget, and a caring wife:

I am not sure whether I bought [the clothes] as gifts or as they became necessary. I buy those clothes based on my preference but give them to [my husband] on his birthday as gifts. [F 35]

Thus, Japanese women seem to share similar traits with their American counterparts (Otnes et al. 1993).

The other prominent aspect of female giving experiences is that almost all the consumers mentioned handmade knitting items, such as sweaters, vests or gloves, as the most memorable gifts that they ever gave to their partners. The narratives also disclosed the somewhat hedonic perceptions of Japanese women. For many consumers, what was important was the enjoyment of the knitting process. Their primary concern centers around their own accomplishment and subsequent compliments, while their partners' needs and satisfaction with the gift are important yet secondary:

I liked the time I spent while I made [the vest:] Choosing the yam, creating the design, and measuring the size. After finishing it, I wrapped it up. I was very satisfied with the all-original created gift. [F 351

This response was typical of women's experiences of "the happiest moment" when their partners wore their handmade clothes. The male partner's appreciation is instantly expressed verbally or nonverbally, as one female excitedly recalls, "he wore the sweater on top of the shirt immediately" (F 30). It can be observed over an extended period of time:

He later married a different woman. But, ..., I learned he still had the old, worn out sweater and took good care of it, although his wife had been asking him to throw it away. I was very moved when I heard about it ... [F 301

Males' Receiving Experiences

Not surprisingly, a handmade sweater or other handmade items are the most memorable gifts that many males received. The themes that appear in their episodes are again surprise and assurance/symbol of relationship. Although the females, who wrote about a handmade item as the most memorable giving gift, did not mention that they had an intention to surprise their partner, the gift did surprise their partners. Similarly, although most of the females did not express any extended effort or sacrifice involved in making the sweater or other handmade items, the male partners tended to perceive that they were making such an effort. The male partners interpreted an irregular shape, a wrong size, or loose knit that created an unprofessional appearance as signs of efforts made by the female partners who were unaccustomed to engaging in such crafts and thus were also unskilled in them:

Perhaps, [the most memorable gift] is a handmade sweater I received on my birthday. She was not a kind of woman who would make such a thing. In fact, the sweater was not knit tightly and was stretched out, and I could not wear it. Therefore, the sweater made me feel that she tried hard to do something she was not used to. [M 30]

Anxiety caused by uncertainty in a relationship is one of the characteristics of the early phase of romantic love (Jankowiak 1995). A surprise handmade gift can function to release such anxiety and to symbolize the intimate relationship:

About three months after we started to go out, the number of days in a week that my wife returned home while leaving me in school increased. It seemed she was avoiding me. I was a member of the soccer team in school. She used to wait for me while I was practicing, and we used to go home together. I was worried that she started to lose interest in me. Then my birthday came. On my birthday, she gave me a cushion on which she embroidered my figure playing soccer. I was relieved and pleased when I found out that she was leaving home without waiting for me because she was making the cushion for one month before my birthday. This cushion was the first gift I received from her. I still treasure it even today. [M 29]

But, the gift does not have to be handmade in order for it to function as a sign of intimate relationship. It can be the first gift which indicates "warm feeling towards [the partner]"(M 38) or provides opportunities for communication:

This happened before I started to go out with her: There was a Christmas party among friends and each of us was supposed to bring a gift. The gifts were collected into one place and then randomly given to each guest. By coincidence, her gift came into my hand. Looking at me having her gift, she started to talk to me, 'Oh, that's the one I brought!' As I had liked her even before then, I became very happy. [M 35]

Many of the males' most memorable gifts tend to be the first handmade item that they received in their life. Others appreciate covert thoughtfulness manifested in the unexpected gift. These seem to be more common among married couples. For example, one male who wanted to buy a new wristwatch but hesitated to buy one because the current one was still working recalls:

I could not tell my wife that I wanted a new one and just looked at the advertisements in the news paper insertion from time to time. One day, she quietly gave me the one I wanted. [M 29]

Another male (M 35) also appreciated that his wife, hearing him murmuring about his favorite sake, made a big trip to a distant liquor store to buy the particular brand. These last two episodes are not illustrating a gift that they received for a particular occasion. But, in both instances, the male partners experienced joy and appreciation derived from the unexpected present. They appreciated their wives because of their close attention and thoughtfulness to please them in a subtle way.

Females' Receiving Experiences

The main themes for Japanese female consumers' most memorable gift-receiving episodes are unexpected/surprise and effort. They appreciate subtle, quiet thoughtfulness that they feel in their receiving experiences, similar to males'. While Japanese men strive to surprise their partners; in gift-giving occasions (and that is one of the most memorable aspects of the giving experience), their female counterparts appreciate such attempts in their gift-receiving experiences. For them, the male partners' attempts themselves are even more important and appreciated than the tangible gift item. One female whose boy friend surprised her by "planning everything to a tee" for her birthday dinner at an unusual restaurant and a surprise gift recalled:



The gift was a small casual-looking tote bag. To tell the truth, I did not like the design. But, I really appreciated his thoughtfulness: reserving the table at the restaurant and buying the surprise gift. [17271

Another female whose boyfriend unexpectedly bought her a gift in disguise explained the circumstances:

I saw the muffler and said jokingly, 'I like this. Should I buy it?'Then he bought it when I wasn't aware ... I had absolutely no expectation. [F 30]

What made this gift-receiving occasion even more memorable for her was their subsequent conversation:

[The muffler] was not expensive. I put the muffler around my neck immediately and shouted 'I will treasure this for the rest of my life. I am so happy.'...[In] response to my comments, he said 'you are lying.' Later, he confessed that he said so in order to conceal his embarrassment, and in fact, he was very happy about my comments. [F 30]

This male partner's seemingly strange reaction is understandable among the Japanese. Japanese people are in general reserved and not trained to express their feelings (Benedict 1946; Matsumoto et al. 1988). Therefore, when one is overtly complimented, he or she is embarrassed by the other person's expressiveness and by a lack of knowledge and experience of how to properly react under such situations (Doi 1986).

Also, as discussed previously, men are not accustomed to give gifts to their romantic partners, especially when they are young and single. Japanese women understand the embarrassing feelings their partners have to endure while shopping for gifts. therefore, women tend to appreciate men's efforts to overcome such suffering. Their psychological torture weighs heavier than the material gift in the female consumers' overall evaluation of the most memorable gift receiving experience:

[The most memorable gift] was a scarf he gave me on my birthday ... It was a kind of scarf that I would never buy for myself ... What pleased me was that, although he was not much an expert, he went shopping, consulted the clerk and bought the gift by himself. They say that it is embarrassing for men to buy flowers. I assume that it was as much embarrassing for him to buy the scarf as to buy flowers. His thoughts -'it is embarrassing, but I will do it for her'-pleased me, and this scarf is my favorite one now. [F 271


In this paper, we have analyzed gender differences in gift giving and receiving experiences among Japanese consumers. They provided their most recent and the most memorable gift giving and receiving episodes. The emergent themes from these episodes are summarized in Table 1.

There are three major findings. One is the similarity of the characteristics of Japanese couples' most memorable gift to the "perfect gift" (Belk 1996). A handmade sweater, for example, is perceived by men as luxurious (irreplaceable), a result of sacrifice (time and effort), and surprising. Thus the value-adding ability of the handcrafting (Wallendorf and Arriould 1988, cited in Rucker et al. 1996) is not a mono-Western phenomena. Our findings thus directly contradict those of Rucker et al. (1996) who claim "[in] cultures that emphasize strict financial reciprocity, givers and recipients have difficulty adding effort (sacrifice) to the equation" (p. 156). The disagreement comes from the fact that they (and other researchers in the past) do not classify their respondents based on the varying levels of interpersonal intimacy. We, on the contrary, single out romantic couples who feel allowed to express their personal feelings and emotions in privacy (Midooka 1990), although many communicate in a highly contextual manner compared to Western approach (Doi 1985, 1986). In this regard, our study was successful in excavating the personal feelings beyond emotionologically (culturally) construed emotional patterns of the Japanese psyche (Steans and Steans 1985).

There are also seemingly culturally distinct aspects in our findings. For one, embarrassment (rather than financial and time aspects) is a source of men's enduring sacrifice and shopping is a cause of such feeling. For another, men's narratives tend to describe their partners' feelings or expected feelings as a reaction to the men's giving. On the other hand, women's narratives tend to more heavily center on their own feelings. Yet another distinctive aspect is the strong value attached to handmade items, particularly a sweater made by women. In addition to its tangible nature, knitting a sweater requires women to spend more time and efforts than cooking, creating art pieces, or composing poems. It seems however, there is a cultural value attached to a handmade sweater, and it serves as a symbol of perfect gift from a woman to a man in a romantic relationship.

The third finding is that while women seem to correctly interpret their partners' feelings and intentions, men tend to misinterpret their partners'. For example, females understood their partners' embarrassing feelings and intentions to surprise. Males on the other hand perceived their partners' handmade gift as a symbol of sacrifice, surprise, and assurance of relationship while their female counterparts do not report such aspects. Nevertheless, their recollections from the most memorable gift experiences reveal that they arc content with the "perceived" altruistic motive of the giver and their subjective interpretation of their partners' altruistic responses in their self-constructed "perfect gift" synopsis.


The process of gift-giving is very much a culturally-constructed, as well as a gender-constructed phenomenon, which entails both major variations and subtle nuances of difference across cultures. Future research should continue to pursue the cultural idiosyncrasy of gift giving and receiving among romantic couples in Japan and elsewhere. It should place stronger emphasis on individuals' feelings and emotions related to romantic (passionate) love, attachment, and reflexive identity reconstruction as they affect gift-giving as a process and means of communication in intimate relationships. Finally, there should be studies to address the effects of stage-of-life and generation on romantic giving and receiving experiences as well.


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Yuko Minowa, Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus
Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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