The Gift of a Memory in Japanese Culture

In Japan, there is a special importance placed upon recollections. It is intriguing that they are often given like presents. However, since gift-giving is a fundamental component for the smooth functioning of society in the Land of the Rising Sun, I suppose that is unsurprising.

Japanese people are highly visual: their language is based on ideograms adapted from the Chinese during the 8th century. First-graders are expected to read and write 80 common-use Chinese characters, which are called “kanji” in Japanese, and can get quite intricate. The common-use character for “melancholy”, for example, consists of 29 strokes and is taught during junior high school.

The observation that Japanese are visually oriented can be noticed in a couple other ways: photography is a passion for many people, and the annual Obon Festival is based on imagery, which is often nonphysical.

Before sharing a valued spring memory from my early days in Japan, let us touch on a significant Japanese custom that is practiced every spring.

Coming of Spring in Japan

The Japanese traditionally celebrate spring’s arrival by eating, drinking, and treasuring the most beautiful phase of their cherry trees. These celebrations are called “hanami”, which means “flower-viewing”, and hanami can also include singing and dancing as part of the numerous parties in parks and along riversides.

What makes the festivities particularly special is that the white and pink blossoms are only in full bloom for approximately one week, after which they gently fall to the ground in a symbolic death.

The flower’s descent is often brought forth by a delicate breeze, which has been likened to the fate of a “samurai”, meaning “wait upon” or “serve”, from more than 150 years ago: the feudal lords for whom they worked, as protectors of private lands and as warfighters, could simply snap their fingers to end their lives.

Japanese poetry compilations from as far back as the early 10th century reference the ephemeral flowers. For instance, an anonymous poet from the Heian era (794 – 1185) wrote, “Are they not like / this fleeting world? / Cherry blossoms: / no sooner do they flower / than they fall.”

One twenty-two-year-old “kamikaze”, which translates to “spirit wind”, wrote this farewell haiku prior to his suicide mission near the conclusion of World War II:


Hence, the cherry trees are popularly compared to life itself: fragile, impermanent, short-lived, and beautiful. And the flowers are so culturally significant that they are observed by dozens of millions each spring and are stamped on 100-yen coins.

The coming of spring reminds me of when I was getting ready for my introductory hanami.

Waking Up for My Flower-Viewing

It was a balmy, partly cloudy morning near the beginning of April 2016. I was in Aichi, Japan, heading outside from my tiny apartment and excited to fully experience my first national event.

Like the vast majority of other workers from the West, I was earning money as an English instructor, having just landed at Kansai International Airport a couple months prior.

A favorite student of mine during this nostalgic period was a middle-aged engineer named Mr. Hazuki. He was an open and generous man who enjoyed practicing English and sharing his culture. I recall that he once allowed me to critique an entire work-related presentation that he translated into English. He created a step-by-step instruction manual about folding origami cranes for me, too, every page meticulously handmade.

After leaving my apartment and walking down a few flights of stairs, I met him in the otherwise empty English conversation school parking lot.

In the back seat of his immaculately clean, compact car were beverages and Japanese snacks for our trip. These were for our celebration, and no other season in Japan is anticipated and enjoyed quite like spring.

But, as we will see, this hanami was more than a celebration: it was also a sort of gift, which leads us to the relevance of gifts in Japan.

Gift-Giving in Japanese Culture

Life was cheap during Japan’s samurai-ruled feudal era (1185-1868). These noble warriors could legally execute commoners without court trials if they felt laws were broken or if they merely felt disrespected. A case in point is that some of the most arrogant ones murdered peasants or the rare foreigner for sport, to test their blades or to demonstrate their skills, hence the Japanese expression: “One wrong step and . . .” (一歩間違うと).

Before fiefdom, democracy, 47 prefectures, and so forth, the samurai could virtually do anything they wanted. Farmers, fishermen, artisans, merchants, and the like needed a way to stay on good terms with them. It was not only important for their safety but also important for the paramount cultural concept of harmony, called “wa”, within a social group, where communal peace is valued before personal interest.

That is why giving gifts is extremely important in Japanese society. It is a powerful social lubricant and at least a biannual social obligation for many, in that there are two seasons dedicated to it: one in the middle of the year is called “o-chūgen”, and the other in December is called “o-seibo”.

In addition to Japan’s many other practices of gift-giving — such as providing “useful” Japanese gifts while traveling and providing souvenirs to family, friends, and coworkers upon returning from travel — a national confectionery association created “White Day” in 1978. As a response to Valentine’s Day, when women give chocolate to men, March 14th is when men return the favor.

The etiquette for choosing and presenting gifts is detailed and involves many rules. As an illustration, one traditionally wraps a present by folding two sheets of handcrafted paper and then by tying it with decorative cords that are starched and dyed. Black and white cords are for funerals and are tied with a special difficult-to-loosen knot, signifying permanence; red and white cords, or the more elaborate gold and silver cords, are for joyous events and are tied with an easy-to-loosen butterfly knot, symbolizing recurrence.

It is also important to avoid giving a Japanese person a set of four dinner plates, for instance, because sometimes “four” is pronounced, “shi”, which sounds exactly the same as the Japanese word for death (死).

Ultimately, with the exceptions of close friends and family, gift-giving is primarily a tool to harmonize social commitments and to remind the receiver about the significance of the relationship; it is not about telling the receiver that he or she is “one-of-a-kind”.

Let us return to that hanami scene, that “gift” I received, from four years ago.

Getting Dropped Off from My Flower-Viewing

After finishing our hanami, Mr. Hazuki drove me to the local, two-story bookstore. I eagerly wanted to learn more about Japanese culture, including the language.

We did share a few fun hours beforehand, enjoying lunch, discussing work and family life, practicing English conversation, and taking photos.

I learned hanami etiquette from him, as well, some customs being common sense and some not. For instance, nobody appreciates litterbugs or obnoxious drunks, and touching the trees or their flowers is frowned upon — even in Washington, DC, USA, breaking off such a limb or blossom is considered vandalism of government property.

Celebrating the cherry trees with him was a pleasant, instructive moment for me, and I will never forget some of the closing words we shared right before he dropped me off at that bookstore in early April.

I said something to the effect of, “I had fun! Thank you for sharing hanami with me!”

Mr. Hazuki replied, “No problem. I wanted to give you a good memory.”

After nearly three decades of life experiences in the US, I could not recall anyone else saying that to me. Sure, I had often heard fellow Americans reminiscing on the good old days, years later; however, I could not remember any of them bringing up a good memory immediately afterwards and then expressing a desire to give it to me.

Yet recollections are not limited to on-demand recreations of the mind; they can also be influenced by mementos, like photos.

Photography in Japanese Culture

More than 100 years ago, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen said, “A thousand words cannot leave so deep an impression as a single deed.” Today, that adage is best-known as, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Photography is essentially the action of creating images by means of “writing with light”. The word is Greek in origin: the prefix “photo-” means “light”, and the suffix “-graphy” translates to “process of writing”.

I am unsure as to whether any other country takes that art as seriously as Japan does. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, and Olympus manufactured 85.2% of the digital cameras sold globally in 2018.

In Japan, one can easily witness the keen interest in photography outdoors. An elderly man with a professional-grade telephoto lens is not difficult to spot, and neither is a dedicated photography store with hundreds of cameras.

It can easily be witnessed indoors, too. Setting up an artistic shot of one’s next meal is very common in Japan. Also, “purikura” (which is derived and abbreviated from the English “print club”) picture booths are very typical: friends take group shots, playfully edit them, and trade them as stickers.

We take photos because we want to remember a moment better. Our minds certainly recall images better than words, but our recollections are nevertheless imperfect. We save photos, protect them, and organize them, as if they are books in a library. Hence, we group recordings of light into albums.

Then we flip through our albums to walk down memory lane. Whether the pictures are developed film or digitally processed, they are a means of revisiting ideas and, subsequently, feelings. They are mementos, and the Japanese especially like them.

Although a memento, such as a photo, is a powerful reminder, it is usually not necessary for the preservation of a memory.

Mental Images for Japanese People

The Oscar-nominated stop-motion film Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) touches on the power of psychological imagery in Japanese culture. The story takes place in medieval Japan.

One example happens during an Obon Festival scene. The townspeople are communicating with, honoring, and celebrating the remembrances of their ancestors. It is a family reunion in spirit, not to mention a major Japanese holiday that has been observed by dozens of millions for more than 500 years. Even though they are able to contact and later see off their forebears back to the spiritual realm — via the traditional paper-lantern-floating-downriver method — the protagonist Kubo is unsuccessful. He is effectively angry and destroys his lamp because he lacks the memory, the mental snapshot.

Yet the most moving illustration transpires at the climax. Kubo uses a magical tool, which invokes the memories of his mother and father, to conjure the ghosts of the villagers’ aforementioned ancestors. The townspeople then join him and their forebears. He uses the device again to shield his newly-formed army against the main antagonist’s attacks, and he uses it for the final time to channel the power of the spirits. This power is consequently weaponized to incapacitate the adversary, causing him not only to become powerless but to become amnesic, as well: he no longer remembers his evil past.

What immediately follows is a beautiful act of love. Since the antagonist has now “forgotten” his “story”, the villagers, in their wisdom regarding the power of psychological imagery, agree to refill his mind with untrue “recollections” of who he used to be. One citizen tells him, “You are the kindest, sweetest man to ever live in this village.” The other townspeople catch on to her idea, telling him that he fed the hungry, taught kids how to swim, handed out coins to elderly women, etc. Although he cannot recall those favors, he eventually believes and accepts that he was a “selfless” person.

Mind as a Fortress

A recollection is usually a possession until death. Before the antagonist in Kubo and the Two Strings was rescued, he maliciously told Kubo that all of his loved ones were dead. The protagonist replied that they were not really dead, that they continued to survive in his “memories”: they cannot be snatched away if we hold on to their stories via this “most powerful kind of magic” that exists.

The yearly Obon ritual is based on many special actions that are dedicated to remembrances, too. The Japanese take off work for three days and travel to their hometowns due to their belief in the power of remembering. They offer food, drinks, and shelter to the spirits of their ancestors by virtue of their belief. They perform the Obon dance to celebrate and appreciate the kindnesses of their forebears.

Indeed, recollections are powerful. When I revisited my former elementary school after two decades, the scent of the hallway cleaning solution was the same. It jogged my memory back to when Joe the janitor greeted me in the halls as a child. And the reason I am able to write about my cherry blossom festival with Mr. Hazuki from four years ago is because the flip book, so to speak, still survives in my mind’s eye.

Many Japanese people are passionate about photography since it creates memories. Photos help us recall personal experiences with more clarity by filling in the blanks, as it were, of our imperfect brains. For example, I am unable to explicitly picture what I drank at hanami with Mr. Hazuki, but when I look at our picnic photo, it reminds me of milk tea.

Flower-viewing was given to me like a present, and Mr. Hazuki told me that. Over the next several months in Japan, I heard similar refrains from other Japanese friends, either immediately after sharing an enjoyable event together, or years afterwards. They wanted to give me good memories; on the other side of the coin, I gave them good memories, in which case they thanked me for my “gifts”.

The antagonist from Kubo and the Two Strings received a similar “present” from Kubo and the villagers, even though it consisted of false recollections. To spare him from self-hatred, malice, and other types of suffering, they furnished his mind with positive self-perceptions, taking full advantage of the blank slate that it became.

So there is a special relationship in the highly visual Japanese culture between the idea of a gift and the receiver’s remembrances. This is unsurprising since gift-giving is a basic ingredient for the smooth functioning of society in the Land of the Rising Sun: gratitude is extended in a unique way that is not fixed to the present tense, and the imagery-based offering can be given physically or intangibly.