View Electronic Edition

The Gift Economy

ONE AREA IN WHICH American companies are always at a disadvantage when operating in Japan is that of personnel. American managers frequently complain that they are unable to attract the best Japanese people td work for them. Americans are often at a loss to explain this problem: compared to Japanese employers these companies offer exceptional wages, longer holidays, shorter work hours, challenges and other benefits which would make these jobs seem like great opportunities to anyone. Why then do Japanese people refuse to work for these companies?

The answer? The factors which Americans find important in selecting a job are not important to Japanese. The traditional business analysis does not work. In fact, the rules of a market economy are not the rules which apply in the Japanese employment world; rather the rules of a gift economy apply.

In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde {CQ #35) develops a powerful theory of gifts. He observes that the exchange of gifts is subject to different rules than the exchange of goods. Hence the distinction between "gift economies" in which goods and services are exchanged as gifts and "market economies" where goods and services are exchanged as commodities (i.e. bought and sold). For the purposes of this article, the most important difference between these two is that in the exchange of gifts a bond is developed between the parties involved. When I buy something from someone, I don't really care if I ever see that person again.

When an American takes a Job, he or she is entering into an exchange which takes place almost totally in the market economy: the company is buying that person's labor. Although some degree of company loyalty may develop, compared to the Japanese, Americans find it easy to change jobs and do so more often. When another job that is more interesting, pays more or is more convenient comes along, people switch jobs. This is accepted as a societal norm.

When a Japanese person takes a job, he or she is entering into a series of exchanges which take place almost totally in a gift economy. The ramifications are reflected throughout Japanese society and in turn reflect on our relationships (or lack thereof) with Japan. The gift relationship has many aspects; each of these is reflected in the relationship between a worker and his or her company. The most basic example is the simple exchange of physical gifts.

Japanese companies give gifts to their employees on all of the occasions in which gifts are exchanged between ordinary individuals; weddings and deaths are the two most common. In these cases the company is personified by the department manager, who must also attend the ceremonies associated with these events. Both require the exchange of gifts between both parties; the company also receives gifts from the employee. At a Japanese wedding, guests bring gifts of money, and guests receive a physical gift of about the same value as the monetary gift (the amount is generally approximated in advance by the level of one's income and social station). At funerals, guests also bring money and receive food at the wake, as well as salt and tea or sweets to take home. In these cases the company provides the money to be given by the manager. It is important to note that the manager is not paid extra for his time on these jobs. This reinforces his symbolic representation of the company (he is not a hireling doing the job for money).

Japanese managers are also expected to help find spouses for their employees. About half of all marriages in Japan are arranged and these include introductions arranged through one's boss. In this case the manager must also attend an engagement party and gifts are again exchanged. When problems develop in a marriage it is not considered at all odd or unusual for a woman to call her husband's boss and request help. The manager has, through his introductions, entered into the relationship in an important way. If he can help, he will talk to his employee and help to resolve the problems. He may see to it, for example, that the person involved get home earlier, bypassing the business drinking and so on.

The largest gift-giving occasion in the West is obviously Christmas. The Japanese have adapted this custom, blending it with o-sei-bo (literally "year end [gift]"). Japanese also have adopted a similar Chinese custom called Chu-gen. Chu-gen takes place in July (not on any fixed day). On each of these occasions Japanese people give gifts to people with whom they have certain relationships (friends and debt or obligation relationships). On these occasions companies also give an important gift to employees in the form of cash payments. The word used to describe the money is borrowed from English, "bonus," but it has completely different connotations and meaning from the English word. Notably the total value of the bonus in Japan is from four to twelve times (occasionally higher) the value of one's monthly salary. The level varies roughly with the economic well-being of the company. Furthermore, no Japanese treats this money as a bonus in the Western sense. It is necessary for survival. Although bonuses are paid in lump sums, each Japanese homemaker (usually the wife controls the family finances) budgets the year's expenses and income as if the bonus were spread out. In essence the bonus is considered normal income since it is part of the money required for living, and cannot be considered surplus.

Many companies reinforce the sense of gift-giving at bonus time by having the manager personally hand out the money in cash to each employee, differentiating it from salary which is paid by electronic funds transfer, directly to the wife's account. (This method is fading however, due to the large amounts of cash involved. Today, banks must make special provisions to make sure that the required cash is available when the companies call for it. Banks and companies arrange to pay on different days, so the same cash can be used. Also some trivia Japan's largest robbery on record took place when a thief stole the bonus cash from the deliverymen.)

Another important gift is the yearly company trip. These are packaged vacations which Japanese love dearly. Entire resort communities are built for and depend on the income generated by a constant stream of groups of Japanese workers who take a weekend with their co-workers. Everyone sleeps together, six or more to a room (segregated by sex), everyoiie eats the same meal at the same time, everyone watches the same show, everyone bathes together (hot springs are a favorite site for these outings), and everyone sings together (at the karaoke a bar where people take turns singing into a microphone). Although employees must contribute a small amount of money for these trips, in the words of one Japanese, "It is not considered that they are paying for it." Each person is giving part of the gift but the company picks up the tab.

Any company in Japan must give a constant stream of small gifts to any company that buys its product or service. These gifts, which take the form of cookies, cakes, cooking oil, soap, soy sauce, fruit, canned goods, tea, coffee and so on, are exchanged by visiting personnel. As they are received by the company, they are passed on to the employees who share them. Especially large amounts of these gifts are passed out at Christmas and at Chu-gen, but continue year 'round.

Another important event in Japan is the New Year celebration. This is so large and complex that it commonly begins in early December. Like the Chu-gen, gift-giving is not fixed on a single day (like Christmas Day); the actual event is more hazy. New Year celebrations are more like big communal birthday parties. In the Chinese tradition a person's age is counted from New Year, not the physical birthday. Two of several important celebrations at this time are the bo-nen-kai ("[to] forget [the] year gathering") and shin-nen-kai ("new year gathering"). Again, almost all companies arrange these parties for their employees (as well as separate ones for customers).

Another Western custom adopted (and adapted) by the Japanese relates to Valentine's Day. It is common in Japan for females to give chocolates to two groups of men on February 14. One group consists of men (usually one man) they are romantically interested in. In the second case, gifts of chocolate are given to anyone to whom the woman feels indebted or under obligation. These gifts are called giri-choco ("duty-chocolate"). Virtually all women in Japan give such gifts to their managers.

The main gift given by the employees to their company for all the gifts just described is their labor. Work is done with great concern for accuracy, for quality and for promptness. This does not take place only in limited areas of production but pervades the society. As one visitor to Japan remarked after he had some papers photocopied: the job was flawless. Each page was perfectly centered, and each page matched the others. It was the extraordinary care shown to what would normally (by Westerners) be considered an insignificant job that impressed him.

The context of gift-'giving is deeply intertwined with the rest of the society. A non-Japanese-speaking department manager, for example, would create considerable discomfort at a Japanese wedding. A woman in Japan evaluates the companies she might work for knowing that in almost all cases her husband will come either from within the company or from a company of similar social status. In the case of a man outside the company, she will meet him through a meeting arranged by her manager. No woman can lightly enter a job where she might have an American for a boss. What if he doesn't know what to do? And it is likely that he won't. Rather than looking at how American companies can compete inside Japan, perhaps Japan's economic success brings into question the usefulness or validity of the current employee/employer relationship in America.

In the environment I have tried to describe, each employee develops a rich sense of belonging and security. No amount of money, number of holidays (without the rest of the group), or opportunity for advancement can equal these things. In the Japanese norm, a "job" has a deep context and meaning which an American "job" does not. A Japanese person employed by an American company is missing a lot of what it means to have a job in Japan.