1. Gifts and commodities

Since Mauss (1923), anthropologists have had a clear-cut tool at their disposal in the concept of ‘gifts’, one that stressed that although gifts appear voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, they are obligatory and interested (Mauss 1967: 7, 1979). By contrast, Mauss’s distinction between ‘societies of the gift’ (clan-based societies) and ‘capitalist societies’ (class-based societies) has posed many problems. Although the studies of transactions in ‘societies of the gift’ have illuminated many aspects of the symbolic and political importance of gifts, it has also become evident that it is not clear how to apply these findings to the understanding of contemporary industrial societies (Strathern 1982, Gregory 1982 Thomas 1992, Cheal 1988: 4).
The roots of what has come to be called the ‘gift and commodities’ debate are to be found in Mauss’s idea that gifts identify two types of social relations: commodity relations and gift relations. Commodity relations, as found in capitalist-state societies, describe the alienation and autonomy of individuals in their market transactions, and the ‘strict distinction’ between ‘things and persons’ during exchange (Mauss 1925: 46, 47). Gift relations, in pre-capitalist societies, describe the boundedness of people with others and things, created by the transfer of a possession.
Now, in all these numerous societies, on many different levels of civilisation, in the Maori legal system in particular, these exchanges and gifts of objects that link the people involved, function on the basis of a common fund of ideas: the object received as a gift, the received object in general, engages, links magically, religiously, morally, juridically, the giver and the receiver. Coming from one person, made or appropriated by him, being from him, it gives him power over the other who accepts it. (Mauss 1925: 8)
For Mauss, clan-based and class-based societies were different because the morality of generosity had been partially lost in class or capitalist societies in their evolutionary process (Mauss 1925: 63-67). If he could show that ‘gift economies’ were not a ‘natural economy’ or a utilitarian one as the neo-classical theories of his time argued, he would prove that western societies could transcend their utilitarian economy to achieve a moral solidarity (ibid.: 80).
In Mauss’s view, the problem with gifts and commodity economies was a problem about objects, the production and exchange of such objects, and the nature of contractual relations that subjects define through objects and exchange. In another words, it was a problem of the different relationships between people engaged in transactions. In societies of the gift, these relationships take the form of what Mauss called ‘total prestation’ or ‘total contract’ (Mauss 1925: 188): every exchange embodies some coefficient of sociability, and it is a means to create peace and bonds of trust (cf. Harrison 1993: 6, Sahlins 1972: 183). In commodity economies every exchange is fragmented at each instance of the exchange of objects, and things are alienable (ibid.: 31). The problem of the alienability of gifts in capitalist societies which Mauss had inherited from earlier works on Marx (1868) led Mauss to investigate how it was that in a gift economy gifts were inalienable. With the work of Malinowski (1923) Mauss found that the concept of Maori Hau, the spirit of the donor in the gift, was the source of reciprocity in exchange. Things were personified by the hau, enforcing a return of some kind. As Josephides (1985) put it:
For Mauss the obligation to return gifts arose out of the powerful relation between gift and donor, such that the recipient could not enjoy the fruit of the gift without making a return to the donor (Josephides 1985: 107).
Reciprocity, though, created inequality (see Josephides 1985: 109-113). Mauss concentrated on the fact that this inequality was of a different order than the relations of alienation, dominance, and control in capitalist societies. The crux of Mauss’s contrast between societies lay in the idea that class societies have forgotten the theme of the ambiguity of the gift (Mauss 1925: 66). The theme of the gift is Mauss’s most famous argument: the gift is a form of self-deception. In gift societies domination is mostly ‘disguised’ (see Bourdieu 1997: 217, and Josephides 1985 on the mystification of inequalities). Gifts, in the sense of presents, are a source both of pleasure and of ‘poison’ (Mauss 1924: 28-31). As Mauss argued, the root of the problem with gifts is that ‘society always pays itself in the counterfeit coin of its dream’ (ibid.: 231 in Bordieu 1997).
In the 1950s and 1960s Anthropologists had come to see the gift-commodity dichotomy as a useful analytical tool. With Polanyi (1957) and Sahlins (1972), a theory of modes of exchange developed into what is known as the ‘substantivist’ theory of economics.[18] Sahlins argued that reciprocity is a ‘continuum’. It ranges from ‘pure gifts’ where social proximity is intense, to negative reciprocity between actors that are not close to each other (Sahlins 1972). It was thus that the idea of reciprocity as ‘economically rational’ was introduced, to account for the ideas and practices in ‘primitive’ societies. Designed to explain the different principles operating in production and distribution, it was opposed to neo-classical concepts of the utility of exchange. However, by the late 1970s the debate between the substantivist and the opposite formalist, or neo-classic, approach had reached an impasse. The gap or similarity between gift economy and commodity economy remained unclear.
In early 1980s the debate between gift and commodity economy re-emerged with new intensity. Parry (1986) strongly argued against the importance of the ideology of reciprocity emphasised by Sahlins and his predecessor Lévi-Strauss (1949), insisting on the deficiency of Mauss’s ideas of alienation between things and persons.[19] By contrast, Gregory (1982), from a perspective of political economy, took the Maussian model to its limits, stressing that the gift is antagonistic to the commodity. Gregory argues that ‘what distinguishes commodity from gift exchange is the conceptualisation of kinship as a method of consumption (ibid.: 212). Gift exchange creates relations between subjects exchanging aspects of themselves, while commodity only creates relationships between the objects exchanged. Strathern (1972), following Gregory, developed the theoretical distinction that Melanesian transactions pertain to a gift economy that cannot be accounted for in the West (1992: 5).[20] In a commodity economy persons and things are reified (Jolly 1991: 45). In a gift economy, persons and things are ‘personified’:[21] a process that makes people’s relations visible (Strathern 1992: 189). Harrison (1990), from another angle, considers that what it is exemplary of gift economies is that they force us to look at a different conception of the gift: ‘certain categories of ideas are treated as economic goods, not only standing in meaningful and logical relations but in relations of value’ (Harrison 1990: 189). For these authors gift exchange in capitalist societies can not account for these meaningful holistic experiences. Weiner (1992) sees the crux of the difference in the paradox of ‘keeping-while-giving’ in a social universe where some valuables are inalienable.[22] Keane argues against these views because in any form of exchange ‘people hold conflicting interpretations as to what kind of transactions they are actually engaged in’ (Keane 1995: 607). Looking at the transactions does not suffice for our understanding of exchange.
At the heart of these meanings is the quasi-indissoluble relation between gifts and the incapacity of the recipient to alienate the object from the giver. However, the extent to which a gift can be alienated from men is not determined. Josephides argues that the category of ‘gifts to man’ in Gregory ‘have to be alienated from women where domestic production is their source’. Furthermore, the position of women is more central in the production of objects that circulate as wealth items than Strathern or Gregory acknowledge in their works (Josephides 1985: 206-209). Jolly also seems to argue that the radical contrast between the two types of economies is an imagined chasm, and that these realms are ‘discursive rather than the geography of the real world’ (Jolly 1991: 46)
The extent to which the findings of Melanesian gift exchange theory can illuminate gift giving within capitalist societies was the object of much debate in Carrier (1992) and Cheal (1988). The position taken by these authors is that the perspective of political economy taken by Gregory and Strathern ‘trivialise’ gift behaviour (Cheal 1988: 6). Their main contention is that western societies have a large economic expenditure on gifts, which should not be considered a ‘minor appendage to life in capitalist societies’ (see also Bailey 1971 and Miller 1995). Moreover, Cheal claims, gifts are alienable, and capitalist market transactions have not replaced gifts. At the core of capitalist societies, gift exchange ‘has legal characteristics which distinguish it from other forms of non-commodity transactions’ (Cheal 1988: 11). The explanation of the importance of gifts in the west is that gift exchange, by which he means redundant (unnecessary) gifts, has increased in importance as family life has been broken up. They are symbolic media ‘for managing the emotional aspects of relationships’ (ibid.: 16). Granted that gifts are important for managing emotional aspects, we also have to be aware of what Thomas (1998) criticises: that anthropology has a theoretical bias for ‘social relationships’ to the detriment of ‘the nature of things’ (see also Appadurai 1986: 19). This is certainly a problem in the study of Japanese exchange, where the relational aspect of exchange predominates over ‘the nature of things’. My emphasis on the wrapping of commodities attempts to focus on how things are transformed, and the nature of such objects (gifts) is mystified.
Strathern has pointed out that ‘the gift is more under attack than the commodity’ (1993: 6). In western societies, the commodity certainly appears to have more power of representation on its own. This is in relation to what Carrier calls ‘possessions’. Carrier proposes an analytical distinction between possession and commodity. He shows how certain goods are personalised and manipulated in catalogue advertising to become a possession (1990: 693). In contrast with the commodity, which can be alienated, the possession, which identifies the attachment of persons to things, is inalienable. Carrier (1990, 1992) suggests that market processes, by means of cultural constructions such as catalogues, allow potential consumers to believe they are switching from commodity exchange to a gift economy. One of the characteristics of commodities is that they may be invested with the attributes of gifts. Creighton (1994) proposes a similar idea in Japan for how children are ‘wrapped’ as consumers of market catalogues.
Carrier’s major criticism against the theories of the gift economy, is that, following Cheal and Said, there is an ‘orientalist’ tendency in anthropological description to ‘characterise entire societies in terms of distinctive forms of circulation: societies of the gift and societies of the commodity’ (1997: viii). He argues that the West is confronted with aspects of capitalist societies that can
not be reduced to capitalism; namely, sentimentality towards objects. The west, both authors propose, is not only the land of economic rationality. Carrier tries to arrive at a polite compromise about how to theorise gift exchange: ‘society contains a capitalist-sphere, a sphere of Maussian commodity exchange, existing together with a non-capitalist sphere, a sphere of Maussian gift exchange’ (Carrier 1997: ix). However, as he mentions, these dichotomies are simplification of ‘a muddier reality’ because gift giving can not be reduced to the impact of capitalism (ibid.).[23] In a section of the book rightly entitled ‘oppositions in context’, Carrier establishes the crux of the problem of gifts. In Mauss’s work, there is a tendency to reduce the complexity of alien societies to a mirror image of the West, and to reduce the complexity of Western societies to a mirror image of alien societies (ibid.: 201). The result is that the West and the alien societies are lost in a game of reflections, a ‘wonderland’ of anthropological models. This wonderland is perhaps the reason why Carrier sees that it is ‘too easy to become beguiled by differences, it is hard to see similarities among different types of societies, and hard to see differences within a single type’ (ibid.: 205).
The theories proposed by Carrier have a strong appeal but also contain several flaws. They lack contextualization within power and inequality relations between producers and transactors of gifts. He leaves it for the reader to answer these questions (ibid.: x). The major problem with Carrier’s theories is that they cannot easily be applied to the Japanese case. He seems to argue that they do not apply because Japanese capitalism is different from Western capitalism. I will argue in section three that the Japanese case has much to contribute to Carrier’s theories of gifts and commodities, not because of differences but because of similarities.
The issues of the relation between gifts and capitalism, and of the usefulness of such concepts, are at the basis of my analysis. This is a consequence of the location of Japanese gift exchange at the intersection of the concern with ‘traditional gifts’ (Lebra 1967) and ‘change and modernity’ (Smith 1979, Reischauer 1979, among others). This intersection leaves little room for easy compromises. The 1960s-1970s models on Japanese exchange must be revised in accordance with new critical work in the field of economic anthropology, and economic anthropology should incorporate the case of Japanese gift exchange into their pool of studies. Japanese society is clearly an industrialised and capitalist society. Unlike Creighton 1991 and Carrier 1995, I do not perceive Japanese exchange as containing relations that ‘resemble’ those of the gift economy overlapping with those that ‘resemble’ the commodity economy. The economy of the society is clearly a commodity economy, one that transforms commodities into gifts in order to reproduce what Cheal calls ‘small intimate worlds’. Japanese society sustains powerful representations about itself and a large confluence of ‘reflections’ and positioning in relations to ‘others’. Any attempt to compare the similarities and differences with other industrialised societies will to some extent involve representational problems and reductions. However, Japanese society in 1995-97 is not at the intersection between ‘traditional gifts’ and ‘capitalism’. From the beginning of fieldwork, the villagers of Kamikatsu made many references to gifts, commodities and possessions in contexts other than this classic perspective of ‘tradition and change’. It became clear that their actual perspectives and practices would be one of the central concerns of my thesis.


[18] The substantivist debate is part of the debate known as formalist/substantivist debate, which is an extension of an earlier debate between neo-classic and political economy that lead Mauss to his investigations. Formalism is a development of neo-classic economics, opposed to substantivism. Substantivism argued that formalism could not account for the process of production and distribution in non-capitalist societies, which would operate in totally different principles. Substantivism takes a step further than the positions of political economy held by Mauss. Capitalist societies are not seen at the end of an evolution, but it is reciprocity in gift exchange, which is placed along a continuum of closeness and remoteness with others. (see Clammer 1978 for a contextualization in this debate).
[19] Parry argued that anthropologist place too much emphasis on the ideology of reciprocity. Parry claims that what is being addressed in Mauss theory of the gift is the ideological model of a free-gift that ‘emerged in parallel with the ideology of a purely interested exchange’. The ideology of a free-gift is a product invention of highly differentiated societies with an advance division of labour and a significant commercial sector’. According to Parry, Mauss invented a non-existing dichotomy in the hau notion between gift and spirit, person and thing (Parry 1985: 465). In Parry’ s Indian gift, asymmetry, rather than reciprocity is the key issue of the problem in returning gifts. In the Brahman theory of gift, things must be alienated and the ‘spirit’ of the gift must not return. According to Strathern the problem behind reciprocity and the hau is that the real Melanesian thing is the irrelevance of the dichotomy between spirit and thing. (Strathern 1992: 173). However, Perry and Strathern have been equally criticised by doing what they criticise in others. Parry’s model of the Indian gift, has been said to reproduce the ‘ideology of Caste’ also found in Dumont disguised as pragmatic rationalism (see Raheja 1988:30, Quigley 1993 for different critiques on the ‘ideology of Caste’).
[20] Strathern model is of actors exchanging social totalities, exchanging perspectives and views. The difference between economies is complicated further through the ambiguities of discourse about the ethnocentric perception Europeans have about obligation and market (Gregory 1982, Thomas 1991).
[21]In order to draw this radical contrast, Strathern uses two arguments. First, that persons, the body of persons is partible in feminine and masculine elements and it is the body where people deal with debts, thus debt is personified - attached to the human body. Second that a gift economy is based on the substitution of units, which are personified parts and must be partible, rather than on a ration between things.
[22] Strathern has criticised this view. Inalienability of things does not presuppose inalienability of the actors. Further, suicide in Hagen, speak of a clear alienation of person when they fail to adequate the tension created between kin groups and their political organisation expressed with and by some means of exchange. In the context of some of this means of exchange the roles of wife and sisters and conceptualised and sanctioned depending on the efficiency in the resolution of the levels of reciprocity between the kin groups (Strathern 1988: 283-284)
[23] It is assumed that the historical advent of industrial production discovered a new relation. In the societies defined by the core of the supposedly impersonalisation of market exchange, the category of the "commodity" seemed metaphorically, to substitute what in non-market economies, the gift did not manage to reproduce. An atomisation of individual choice and in Marx terms, alienation of the means of production, and implementation of the alienation in the sphere of social relations. However, Appadauri criticised that “modern economy, ostensibly orientated towards utility and material needs is predicated on the existence of a specific scheme of values and it is a system for the production not only of things but of meaning” (quoted in Harrison 1993: 197).