Souvenirs of Japan
A Small Pouch Weds Big Hearts
Celebrating the new year in Japan (oshogatsu) is one of the most important events in the ritual calendar. The climactic moment eagerly awaited by all children is when parents with deliberation hand them gift money (otoshidama) in a small envelope or pouch (otoshidama bukuro). Giving presents at New Year’s goes back to the 14th century, when “otoshidama” was not monetary, but these days this form of gifting refers to money given to children and younger relatives during the New Year holidays. The envelope with “otoshidama” (お年玉) written on front was originally used to enclose gratuities of appreciation for geisha or traditional Japanese female entertainers and similar staff and employees.
In Japan, people are averse to openly giving or receiving cash, and since olden times there’s the custom of giving ohineri (paper wrapped and twisted around coins) as tips and celebratory gifts. Eventually this paper evolved into an envelope to retain the coins; thus originated the name of pochi bukuro: “pochi” means “a little bit,” and it’s said the name came about through the giver’s feelings of modesty.
A custom remaining to this day is presenting oiri bukuro envelopes to congratulate event and performance staffers—like those for sumo matches and kabuki plays—on a huge attendance. In recent years, the envelopes are available in a wide variety of designs, from fun and colorful to classical, and are used not only to gift money but also to enclose message cards for casual exchanges.