Japanese gifts

Since the release of this blog post, misidentified items have since been recategorised. Get in touch with the Museum if you require more information.

As in many societies, gift giving is a very important part of Japanese culture.

In Japan, as in New Zealand, gifts are given on anniversaries, weddings, births, graduations, housewarmings and so forth. Children’s achievements are also celebrated with gifts.

Omiyage | お土産 and temiyage | 手土産 are two important types of gift given in relation to travel. Omiyage are souvenirs brought home from a trip, while temiyage are thank-you gifts that travellers take to give when visiting or staying with someone.

Japanese tourists are known for being generous buyers of souvenirs for their friends, relatives and co-workers; they also like to give a gift to those who have hosted them.

These gifts act as souvenirs as they typically represent a place the giver came from or has recently been to. Traditionally omiyage would also be products locally made in the place visited. While this is no longer always the case, alongside local foods or locally made products, popular omiyage and temiyage may represent a traveller’s destination or home town. Many souvenirs have these qualities.

Omiyage and temiyage need not always be expensive. In Japan, the emphasis is on the act of giving rather than the gift itself. The value of the gift is generally of less importance than the presentation and thoughtfulness in which it is presented.

In Ashburton, we have some very special gifts that have been given to the people of our district by dignitaries and important visitors to our region. These items are part of the Ashburton District Council’s Civic Collection.

They have been given as gifts by various Japanese delegations and guests over the years. They can remind us that often seemingly simple items can have much symbolism and meaning attached to them.

Kagura masks | 神楽

The painted paper masks seen on this page were given as gifts by visiting dignitaries. They are masks used in Kagura, which is a Shinto theatrical dance. Shinto | 神道 Shintō is the traditional religion of Japan that focuses on ritual practices to be carried that continue to be practiced to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past.

Kagura has a long tradition and often is connected to agricultural rituals as well as local theatrical performances. The masks would no doubt have been appropriate gifts for Ashburton, as it is an agricultural centre.

Each of the masks represent different figures. For example, the red mask with a long nose is Tengu. Although he looks fearsome, a Tengu mask is often hung in houses to ward off evil spirits. Tengu also protects mountains.

The animal mask is Kyogen, which is often worn in the period between acts in the performance.

2 dolls.jpg

Daruma dolls | 達磨

While they may look like fancy toys or ornaments, these small handmade dolls are packed with meaning, as they are symbols of good luck and perseverance. The ones in the Ashburton District Council Civic Collection are presented in specially made glass and wooden cases, in pairs of a male and female doll.

Many aspects of the dolls have symbolic meaning. Firstly, their rounded base shows that even if pushed, they will bounce back. Second, they often have eyebrows the shape of cranes, which is a symbol of good health and success. The Omamori knots on the front of the dolls are also a symbol of good luck and friendship.

Unlike the two examples here, many Daruma dolls have no eyes when purchased – they are firmly fixed on their goals. Sometimes when people set their gaols they will colour in one eye and when that is achieved, they colour in the other one – a visual reminder of progress.

The male doll figurine is wearing stylised samurai top knot and Haorihakama kimono.

Where to see

Items from Ashburton District Council’s Civic Collection have often been on display in the Council Chamber, in reception rooms and council buildings. A selection of gifts from Japan have also been previously on display at Ashburton Museum. During our previous exhibition, The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts, our own displayed items added a local story to the mix. Other Japanese items related to Ashburton were also on exhibition alongside these district and international treasures.

By Tanya Robinson and Kathleen Stringer


1a – 1f. Various Kagura masks, made of a Japanese form of papier mache and painted to represent various theatrical dance figures.

2. Daruma dolls, displayed in a case, feature symbolic knots, rounded forms, garments and hair styles.

3. A female daruma doll photographed out of its case.

4. A male daruma doll wearing stylised samurai top knot and Haorihakama kimono.

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