Omiyage are small gifts that you might bring to hosts, friends, coworkers, or people you are going to meet for the first time. You might remember something about this being involved on Valentine's Day- the habit of bringing coworkers obligation-chocolate. It's similar with omiyage, but all year round.
Generally, if you are meeting someone for the first time and this is arranged ahead of time (ie, not a spontaneous meeting on the street or something), or if you have been away from work on vacation or something, it is considered to be polite to bring small gifts. They do not have to be too lavishly expensive (remember, after all, that people will possibly be obligated to return an equal gift at some point), but they should always be packaged or wrapped attractively. The packaging is as important as the item itself; it shows thought all the way to the final details of the gift-giving process.
Some considerations aside from expense should be taken.
For example, most Japanese homes are very small, compared to American-sized homes or apartments. Therefore, something small or consumable becomes a great gift. A regional, shelf-stable food item, or some foreign candies or foods you cannot get in Japan are good options. In one case, Skittles and Nerds- you can't get either one there! And the chocolate is different, too. They are cute, consumable, and usually liked if you are buying for someone who loves sweets or novelties from overseas. Other things include beef jerky (soooo expensive, if you can find it!), American popular sportswear (like Yankees hats, or Seattle Mariners' Ichiro merchandise), things like that. Don't forget about pets, either! Small packets of dog or cat treats from well-known brands (avoid Meow Mix like the plague. Trust me.) can be obtained anywhere. Avoid things like catnip, since there are rules about transporting plant matter, and it's easy for an untrained eye to mistake chopped green leafy material of one kind for another. For women, maybe a cute change purse or wallet of a kind that is clearly name brand and new, like Anne Taylors' LOFT or somesuch. Makeup or shampoo products from overseas are sometimes unavailable there as well (either the brand or the specific line), but be careful when handing out items like these. A fashionista might love them! Someone's mother might not. And for most adults, expensive alcohols from the States- whisky, bourbon, scotch. They'll be prohibitively expensive for most in Japan!
There are some 'types' of gifts you should avoid: gifts in inauspicious numbers, colours, or gifts that are too expensive. Gifts that are too expensive will cause the recipient to be obligated to return an item of equal value, placing undue burden on the recipient. Inauspicious numbers include 4 (shi) and 9 (ku), which in Japanese, are homophones for 'death' and 'suffering'. Black can be a very formal and fashionable colour, but it can also be a colour associated with funerals. Certain flowers, such as camellias and lilies, are inauspicious, as are most white flowers. Red cards may not be well received because funerary cards are printed in this colour as well. And as always, use common sense. If you know someone has a bad tooth, perhaps it isn't a good idea to present them with sugary snacks. If they love to travel, perhaps a collection of photos from your area and some postcards in a neat box would be fun.
Whatever you bring, remember: small, relatively inexpensive (most of the time), good quality, attractive packaging, easy to carry, not remotely Japanese. Bring lots of them- more than you think you'll need! You never know who will help you out on your travels; an unexpected service from a coworker of your host may warrant an equally unexpected 'thank you'. When in doubt, you might as well give freely, rather than be seen as stingy. Generally, the only people who are not expecting gifts are waitresses or other housemaids, unless working/staying in a hotel in rural areas. Then a discreet tip of perhaps 1500Y is nice. Remember to give gifts discreetly and don't make a big scene.
For this, it's really helpful to know Japan's import/export/prohibition laws. For example, they have a law against importing or carrying in 'obscene materials' (ie, 'standard' pornographic materials). However, 'obscene' is not clearly defined; it may be up to those who check your bags to define it.
More on this in the next installation.
Previously: Meiyo, Honour
Next: The Art of Gift Presentation