A giftwrap is for tearing. That's how it looks to me.

It is, of course, for making a gift properly presentable and pretty. But as soon as the gift lands in the hands of its recipient, it is torn up -- ruthlessly; two fierce talons rip it open and pull apart the ribbons, too, that go around the package. The idea is that the joy of receiving the gift overtakes all patience, and the hands uncontrollably rush to the content. Children are initiated in this ritual since the first Christmas or birthday they remember.

It still makes me shudder to watch the action after all these decades in this country. In Japan the ritual of opening a gift takes a different form. A gift from anyone outside the immediate family is never opened in the sight of the guest who brought it. It is opened only after her or his departure, and a note of appreciation is then written and sent. A gift from a family member is not specially wrapped; it may come in the store wrapping or else it is given unwrapped. Wrapping it makes the receiving family member feel like a guest, an outsider.

Opening a gift out of the sight of the guest saves embarrassment from both the giver and the recipient. First of all, tradition dictates that personal emotion be kept personal and not freely displayed. It is therefore considered improper to open a gift eagerly and joyfully; and what if you didn't like what you saw when you opened it. It is therefore also a courtesy to the giver to leave it unopened in her or his presence because the guest will then be shielded from the ricipient's honest reaction and saved, in turn, from inadvertently expressing her or his true reaction to that of the latter, the recipient.

This is rather peculiar. But there is something peculiar, too, about tearing open a giftwrap. By expressing a joyful impatience prematurely the recipient of the gift, upon opening it, must continue to display the same expression of joy and delight even when it turned out to be a less- than-true expression: "How lovely," "Just what I wanted!" "It's beautiful," "Oh, I love it," etc. These are moments when a culture that insists on informality and openness of feeling forces a performance even between familiars.

Whereas concealing one's true feeling is proper in one culture it is more proper in another to display a false expression. Sincerity yielding to propriety is evidently a culturally-coded behavior.

Second-generation Japanese and some third-generation Japanese reported to me their uneasiness about opening a gift in front of the giver and also their embarrassment watching a giftwrap, especially their own, ripped open in front of their eyes.

The implication of the Japanese giftwrapping phenomenon was extensively discussed by Joy Hendry in her Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies (Oxford University Press, 1993>.

T. Kaori Kitao, 06.09.98

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