68. Orei: Giving thanks or sanctioned bribery?

One of the customs that doesn’t translate very well from Japanese cultural traditions to us Westerners is the notion of orei. Literally, this means “honorable respect.” Practically speaking, it’s a gift (usually monetary) given to someone not required in any stated, overt way, but expected nonetheless, “under the table.” So you could see it as either a heartfelt gift or a bribe, or anything in between.

Orei is part of a general system of cultural gift-giving, which greases the wheels of social interaction, forming social bonds and mutually dependant relationships. The custom of gift-giving even permeates the “local” culture in Hawai‘i, which probably had its origins in Japanese culture as well as perhaps some kind of Polynesian cargo-cult. The joke here is that when you are in Las Vegas, you know who’s from Hawai‘i because they spend as much time shopping for gifts to give to their friends as they do gambling, no matter their ethnicity. Buying gifts for omiyage (gifts from one’s travels) is a local tradition that continues well into my niece and nephew’s generation. Small wonder that Christmas is so popular here, even though a lot of people are non-Christian. It’s another excuse to give gifts.

So orei is another form of gift-giving.

In the case of students of a traditional art, orei is expected from you when you are given something from your teacher and school, such as a rank promotion or a special training session outside of the usual regime. The most visible and customary examples are seen in traditional art systems, such as Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony and so on, although I’ve heard of orei for kendo and judo promotions too.

When you are given a new rank in tea, flower arrangement or dance, you pay for the rank up front. It’s all there in black and white in the charge for rank schedule.

What I didn’t know (and what my tea teacher shielded me from until I started collecting higher-level ranks) was that each time you get a rank upgrade, the expectation is that you slip your main teacher a little white envelope with some money as a “thank you” for her helping you get the rank. Depending on the system, you also slip the head of the school an orei too. It goes up the chain of command. It is assumed that by the time you get up to a particular level, you somehow know how much money is appropriate. How do you know? Beats me. I had to ask. I’m an American. I don’t know those things. It’s not in my blood.

(This brings up a conundrum. Even younger Japanese these days don’t know about orei, or how much to give when and where. It elicited one rather eccentric tea teacher to ask our tea group if we shouldn’t publish specific orei for specific ranks for specific teachers, something my tea sensei thought was extremely uncouth. Orei depends on so many variables, and it is also supposed to NOT be a cold, calculated monetary transaction with specific values. Think of it as a tip. There are general guidelines, but no specific, legal, hard and fast rules.)

It’s done surreptitiously, almost like a poorly concealed bribe, in a way. Everybody knows about it but doing it up front and ostentatiously is considered in bad taste, since money (for a traditional culture still influenced by a warrior class that valued honor and loyalty above such mundane things like money…supposedly) was considered somewhat “unclean.”

For example, at a special seminar, a student who had the honor of being directly tutored by a master tea master gave his orei by handing the tea teacher a small embroidered wiping cloth, called a kobukusa. He said, “Oh, sensei, I just got this new kobukusa and was wondering what you thought of it?”

The tea master took the folded material. Sandwiched within it was a small white envelope of money. He deftly slipped the envelope from the kobukusa to the inside pocket of his left sleeve, looked over the cloth, and said, “It’s very nice. I think you made a good choice…” and handed back the kobukusa, sans envelope. Slick.

To a large degree, the custom of orei has been dropped in the West. Japanese teachers of traditional arts probably figured out long ago that us Westerners have no idea how stuff like that works and so most of them are fine with that. I would hazard that when in doubt, you should follow the dictates of your own particular school. Some groups may still emphasize orei in keeping with Japanese traditions. Others may downplay it, and others may not want it because it forces students to pay more money than they may be able to comfortably afford.

My own tea teacher, a Japanese national who became an American citizen, downplays orei. But as her longtime students, those of us in our group did give her a token amount when we were all promoted together, and we took her out to dinner. The dinner, a truly heartfelt offering of thanks, made her the happiest. And I think if it’s “heartfelt,” it’s more meaningful than just the business of dropping a couple of hundred dollars, at least for small, informal groups.

Many, many years ago I attended a judo seminar. Most of the teachers at the seminar were from Japan. Most of us were by and large American. The workshops were fantastic, and so the higher ranked attendees wanted to thank the teachers and give them something besides their expected seminar fees. We put our heads together. We realized that the teachers enjoyed having a drink after training, so we chipped in and bought some very good bottles of sake, Japanese rice wine. I wrapped them up nicely. At the closing session, the teachers all lined up and we bowed to them. Then we surprised them with a presentation of various gifts and sake. That was our orei. They were flabbergasted. Nobody had given them such gifts after a workshop, ever. I heard afterwards that they had a really nice time imbibing the sake and some of the teachers were even teary-eyed that we showed such consideration and showed them heartfelt thanks through our gifts.

In that case, it wasn’t the cost of the gift that mattered. It was the thought behind it. And it didn’t hurt that the sake was pretty darned good.

What I find, as a general rule, is that the larger the Japanese-run organization, the more formalized any such expected orei becomes. The smaller the organization (or the more “modern” it is) the less orei is expected, since money is less of a factor overall.

In one of the koryu I study, I always bring some kind of gift of Hawaiian-made products to give to my teacher whenever I visit him, as kinds of omiyage. Instead of an orei of cash, I once gave my teacher a hand-stitched quilt made by my wife, who’s a devoted quilter. That gift, that orei, just tickled my sensei pink. He couldn’t stop talking about it. And if it made him happy, it made me happy to give him something that he enjoyed, just as he gave me his teaching and support all these years.

Ideally, then, orei is part of the grease that keeps the gears of social machinery going. It’s not the nuts and bolts, the upfront fees and transactions, but it helps as part of mutual giving. You give orei to your teacher, the teacher gives you his/her teaching and more than what is expected by the books, each and every practice session. Supposedly. And there are also gifts in return.

The first time one of my students met my teacher, he also brought his new wife with him. She had just successfully undergone treatment for cancer and they were enjoying their trip to Japan as a treat after her hospitalization. I had told my teacher about my student and his wife’s harrowing experience beforehand. When we met in his study, we exchanged pleasantries. Then he said, “I was just the other day wandering around some antique stores looking for garden stones and found this…I thought it’s nothing fancy, but maybe your wife might enjoy this memory of Kyoto,” and he gave her an intricately carved sculpture.  Nothing fancy? It was an understatement. The carving was minutely detailed, incredibly beautiful.

So ideally, gifts flow back and forth, and whether monetary or in a form of a gift, it’s from the heart. Ideally.

Orei, however, has become institutionalized in large organizations. As my tea teacher said, she doesn’t ask us for orei because she knows most of us are young or middle-aged working people trying to support our families in one of the most expensive states in the Union. We pressed her to tell us how much orei was expected in Japan, and she finally admitted that for particular ranks, the money for an orei could be equal to the cost of buying a brand new car.

Teaching tea in Japan is a business, she said, and by the time you get to that level of ranks, you’re paying for a teaching license to operate a sanctioned school of your own, getting your own income from teaching, something she guessed none of us really had in mind. So since it’s not going to be a business for us, she never thought to expect orei of that signficance from us.

Lest you think those gigantic sums of orei is the reserve only for elitist art traditions like tea, dance or flower arrangement, it’s there in large martial arts organizations as well. I was talking to an iai student, a foreign-born person who lives in Japan. Her teacher had just failed his eighth dan exam with a large iaido organization. He was pretty depressed. To cheer him up, she thought she would joke with him.

“Oh sensei, maybe you didn’t pay enough orei to the examiners!” she said, thinking it was a joke. To her surprise, he took it seriously.

“Gee. Maybe you’re right. I paid them only about a thousand dollars each. What do you think? How much more should I have paid?”

The student, being from Europe, had no idea that orei would cost that much, and that her suggestion would be taken so seriously. She couldn’t reply, she was so flabbergasted at the princely sums required.

Do I think orei is good or bad? I think, in the context of Japanese culture, it’s there, and you have to deal with it. Sometimes it’s outrageous. Sometimes it’s just a minor detail that needs a bit of attention. I don’t ask my American students for any orei outside of their regular monthly dues, which goes to the room rental; or for anything outside of the usual rank fees. Students do, however, give me Christmas presents like cookies and other treats, which are very nice end-of-the-year orei. But I’m an American, so I go by my own cultural standards. When I’m in Japan, I try to go by Japanese customs. And at least, with smaller organizations, the whole thing about orei is much more informal and more about the kimochi (the feeling) and not the amount of money. It feels less like bribery than giving thanks that way.

6 thoughts on “68. Orei: Giving thanks or sanctioned bribery?

  1. Your anecdote about the student, master, and the kobukasa reminds me of the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where the contractor bribes the warden with a pie baked by his wife and in the box was an envelope full of money.

    And overall, I am with you on this one. As an American in America I would be floored if my sensei (who is Hispanic) expected additional tribute because it was “traditional”. The notion of being even passively required to give additionally – here in the states – at testing, seminars, etc hits a sour note for me. (for the record, I am not “Mr. Pink” from “Reservoir Dogs” when I dine out)

    However, giving a gift like picking up his check at a meal, or a memento or souvenir from travels would be perfectly acceptable.


  2. Well done Wayne. This can be a “touchy” subject. Many of our folks also are deeply involved in a couple of koryu systems and ours has been described by some as very “koryu like” but with modern educational methods and open for change when it’s warranted. We play it by ear on a case by case basis depending on who’s involved. In my experience, it’s never been a problem.

    On another, but somewhat similar, subject though… I’ve never done any budo training or teaching in a “business like way.” I’ve experienced a large number of American’s attitude is “what can I get out of this???… What will it do for me???… Do you have any special deals???” On the other hand, many people who originally come from other varied cultures almost always (when they’ve decided that they want to train with us) say, “What can I/we do to help?” I’ve seen this happen over many, many years and it sorta bugs me.

  3. Another great insight and explanation into both Japan and Japanese martial arts that is so vital, and yet isn’t well known or understood by many. It is my experience many American students and organizations experience confusion and misinterpretation of the practice of orei as it applies to them. When someone, like Wayne explains in as well as he did, it is a great value.

    This blog should be primer for all those traditional organizations outside Japan. it would have been very helpful when I started my training. Understanding how money is being used and the purpose behind it is critical to us Americans. We are not familiar with Japanese customs and expectations of money, such as orei. To us on the surface it looks like bribery, and exploration. Yet, we fail to see that if you go to school for a profession or vocation where a license is required, or a licensed maintained like a doctor, it is going cost hundreds of dollars. We didn’t consider that bribery or exploration, but we do when there is an open end price for a license.

    I believe the Japanese have a different symbolic meaning for money than us Americans. A caveat to my statement may not be an universal practice, it may be only practiced by my sensei. My Japanese sensei would say, money is part of shugyo. He would purport, money isn’t easy to earn, especially for the poor. For him money had another value, in terms of shugyo. He recognized the individual effort given to get money, and not the face value of the currency. He would also say Japanese custom is to give money instead of objects as gifts, this would better help the life of the person you are giving a gift to. I observed essential the Japanese where always giving undetermined amounts of money as gratuity was done for many various occasions. When ask about this custom he would basically say, it is the thought that counts and not the value of the gift. It is my understanding proper Japanese martial arts should see and treat money as I described and as Wayne has laid out. 

    I have hear and read allot of complaints by American students that the Japanese are taking advantage of them monetarily. They feel they are singled out unfairly and being gouged. In truth, as Wayne pointed out in his example, we think the rank in being bought and not earned. We as Americans are use to fees being a set price and uncomfortable with an open ended price. Yet, maybe in the iai example, the money wasn’t enough of an offering for the iai rank. That high of rank carries allot of value and weight. Could it be insulting to the evaluators who didn’t award the rank, that the person didn’t consider deeply enough the importance of them meaning behind orei. These high level tests are not purely about skill, but character and spirit. It is possible, the iai sensei didn’t make a significant enough symbolic gesture of honorable respect, which was his concern. And it wasn’t about the face value of the money he offered? I totally agree with Wayne and appreciated his taking the time to enlighten me further on orei.

  4. I came across this blog after doing a google search for “orei” and could not have been more impressed with this explanation. Just wanted to say thank you, I have a feeling I will be going through more of your old blog posts for additional insights.

    1. David, and thank you for your kind words! I have been remiss as of late in posting new articles due to my work schedule, but I sincerely want to write more….!

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