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What with the Japanese reputation for being so polite, and there being a "right" way to do everything, everyone gets very nervous about doing something that would cause offense on their first trip there. Do not go crazy over this. People are, in fact, just people; the act of being considerate is pretty much culture-independent. A lot of things in Japanese social interactions - giving little gifts to people you visit, etc. - are really ways of recognizing that someone has shown you (or will show you) consideration, taken care of you, etc. Saying thank you, and giving them something - anything, really, it's the gesture that matters - shows you recognize and value that.
Many Westerners are confused by the fact that much of time you'd say "thank you" in English (or many other Western languages) you say "I'm sorry" in Japanese. You're actually expressing the same basic concept - you're recognizing that the other person has done something for you. The Japanese phrase is really short for "I'm sorry ... for the trouble you took" and the Western way is to thank them for the trouble they took. Different words, same idea.
So don't fret. An honest "thank you" and a token gift for anyone who has or will have helped you out will show that you understand the care they took. If the interaction is more personal - someone you've known for a bit - then making the gift a bit more personal is a nice gesture, too. You don't have to get extravagant, and the old saying "it's the thought that counts" is very true in this case. If you plan to meet your mentors or are big fans of a particular origami creator, you might want to have a small gift to give him/her from your part of the world. You will also likely find yourself the center of attraction to some Japanese folders at the convention, so if they give you something, you should have something small to give them in return. They will be delighted to receive whatever you give. Also, please don't forget the GOH staff, who are going out of their way to make sure we have a good time in Japan.
Now, if you are concerned that all those gifts will take up valuable space in your luggage, just think of it this way: after you get rid of all those gifts taking up space, you have that space for all your gifts you will receive and purchase to take home! In fact, if you are like most travelers to Japan, you won't have enough space for all the wonderful things you will buy. And we all know what paper packrats we are... Speaking of which, I would recommend buying one of those travel-tubes for architectural drawings. Makes getting those large sheets of chiyogami home much easier.
As for types of gifts: small interesting food items, like candies or snacks, jams or jellies, are good. Food items that are unique or special to your area or cultural heritage are always a big hit. Small hand-made things (origami jewelry is popular with women) are good, and have the extra coolness factor of being hand-made, with the implied extra care taken. Keychains with decorated fobs with local interest (e.g. for me, Red Sox stuff, or from MIT, or New England) are a cheap but cute small gift. Things you find useful for origami stuff (things to carry paper in, special papers - not Japanese, obviously - etc.) are also an option. Don't forget to wrap everything, no matter how small. Gifts are always wrapped, or at least in a little bag of some sort!
Then there's this rank and social hierarchy thing. One way I heard it explained, once, is that in American culture, anyway, the polite fiction that most people operate under is that "everyone is equal." Higher-ranking people will do things to lessen the appearance of difference in rank - a politician will tell jokes in a speech, anything to make the high-ranking person "just one of the guys" - to make everyone comfortable. But the comparable Japanese polite fiction is that "everyone is not equal - you outrank me." So part of being polite in Japanese is treating the other person with some deference and respect.
(This creates the odd situations where you don't, for instance, directly say "no" to things - that would be contradicting the other person, which isn't "polite" - so you use other, less blunt words which therefore take on the solidity of "no." The phrase "well, it's a little..." frequently means a very solid "no." Sometimes even just the word "well..." can mean "no." But that's an advanced lesson!)
But really, the bottom line is that our Western ways of thinking about and expressing respect and deference will do just fine, here.
And as for table manners and all that - just don't do things you wouldn't do with a fork (gesture with them, leave them stuck in food, etc), and you'll be fine with chopsticks. Oh, and try to remember to leave the toilet slippers in the bathroom if you're at an inn. Beyond that, it's pretty much common sense, really.
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copyright 2014 Anne R. LaVin