text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Every year, in the beginning of June and November and with the almost military precision characterizing repeating occurrences in Japan, appear in big department stores and supermarkets temporary sections selling products that are not new but packaged in a different way: beers, refreshment drinks, cold cuts and other types of meat, pasta (Western or Japanese), jams, preserves, biscuits, juices, fruits but also soaps and detergents that can be regularly found in the stores’ shelves dress up, get put in big boxes with transparent wraps making them look as if they are in glass cases and with gold ribbons and bows printed on them and are put in special spots; organic part of these seasonal mini-stores is a desk where polite salespeople frantically fill in dispatch forms.
“O-chugen” (お中元) in mid-July and “O-seibo” (お歳暮) in mid-December are signs of one of the most dominant characteristics of Japanese culture: giri (義理), that complicated web of obligation and reciprocation that binds Japanese society and which the Japanese learn from the time they take their first steps. Although most of them don’t know it (because the time when Taoism mixed with Shintoism and Buddhism is lost in the depths of time), O-chugen started in China as the birthday of one of the three heavenly emperors Yao, Shun and Yu who rule heaven, earth and water. For the Chinese Taoists, the three holidays of “Sangen” (三元) in January, July and October are still considered vitally important but the Japanese merged the first one with New Year’s and the middle one with O-bon, cancelled the third and forgot why they are using the characters meaning “middle” and “source/origin” and by extension, “birthday”.
What was important for the Japanese was the expression of gratitude, first to their dead and later to their living benefactors, to the people to whom they owe giri: parents and other previous-generation relatives, employers and workplace seniors, doctors and teachers are the most common recipients of O-chugen gifts which are perishable so they can be immediately consumed and make the recipient’s life a little easier and better but also so they can get renewed after six months, when the donor will again express their gratitude. And although, as it usually happens, saying that giri is not considered by many merely a typical gesture might be a stretch, this transformation of perishables into something special through the different packaging and their use as gifts, is perhaps a way to restore some of the intrinsic value that mundane everyday life has robbed them of.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.