The tradition of giving a Year-end gift to ones clients, guarantors, landlords, professors, and other respected parties started way back in the mists of Japanese feudal history. Clearly the gifts are a sign of appreciation by the giver to the recipient of some service, favor, and beneficial relationship and even today, this basis should serve as a guide to you concerning the type of gift and how you should give it (humbly). I suppose you could say that way back then, these gifts were a form of self preservation and not giving one meant possibly insulting a powerful expecting recipient.
These days your life may no longer hang on the inappropriate choice of year-end gift, but in many cases your job may. In fact, if you’re dealing with a traditional Japanese client, then Oseibo is not only expected, but it is an essential part of the communication that will form the foundation for your business interaction over the following year. Particularly for salespeople and managers, Oseibo are an important tool. Many of us get busy at year-end, and its easy to decide that Oseibo are an unnecessary burden. Yes, they are a burden, but unless you have a mandatory “no gifts” lock-down policy from head office, or an extremely spartan budget, you should try to make good on your year-end gift obligations if at all possible.
Oseibo provide a number of major communication cues in the client-vendor relationship:
1. At its most basic, a gift of any value shows that the client was sufficiently valuable to you, to have warranted time and effort to purchase and wrap the gift. For clients who may have otherwise had a bleak year, this level of thoughtfulness can really make their day and give them positive feelings that may help you later if some vendor cutting becomes necessary in 2009.
2. The nature of the gift can show the giver's level of consideration as well. Soaps and other household goods show that the gift is intended for the recipient alone, since this type of thing is not considered overly valuable and is therefore OK to not be shared or handed to the recipient's boss. On the other hand, if the intent is to say thank you to an entire office, then you should try to give easily divisable snacks or other foods. Good quality apples, separately wrapped cakes, etc., are all sure to make all the client's office staff happy (and therefore your contact person as well) about your being their vendor.
3. The act of personally going to present the gift of course also provides a strong message about caring enough about the client to go see them, and it allows a friendly and easy interaction which doesn't have to lead to any further talk outside the gift itself. This is a great way to wrap up a satisfying year of business and open the door for next year. If you can't go yourself, send another senior person who knows the client, and if there isn't such a person, then it's OK to send the gift by Takkyubin. Just remember that in-person presentation of gifts is a powerful act..
4. Usually if I'm giving the gift as an individual foreigner, rather than as a CEO of a Japanese company, then I like to make the gift truly foreign - i.e., something from another country that the recipient can't get in Japan. Food and wine have both gone down well in the past. The problem for me has been that often I haven't had sufficient volume of gifts to cover all levels of the companies that I am reaching out to, so my personal gifts have tended to be to other CEOs. I'll note that in such instances, I have always tried to make sure that the decision makers further down the management tree are also looked after. In my experience, gifts given just at the top are not particularly meaningful in terms of more business next year - they are easily forgotten or dismissed amongst the slew of other gifts the CEO is getting. Instead, be sure to give directly to the person actually involved in managing your account. It works.
One form of Oseibo that usually doesn't work, unless it is very tasteful or is combined with a more traditional gift, is a calendar or some other product plastered with your company's logo on it - with the possible exception of food products. The reason for branded non-perishables not making good gifts is that they are too commercial and too in-your-face, thus turning an act of humility (gift giving) into something a bit crass.
The right time to take your gift in to a client is around now, i.e., the first 3 weeks of December, and certainly not later than the last business day of the year. For many companies in 2008, the last business day is Friday 26th, although some will work on the 29th and possibly half of the 30th.
In terms of what you should spend, a good client merits a gift of around JPY3,000 to JPY5,000, so this isn't really a question of bribery, just thoughtfulness. I find it strange that some Western companies impose a "no gifts" policy at this level of spending. There is no material benefit to be had by imposing such limitations and lots of awkward moments by imposing it.