Working with people from from a completely different culture is rewarding in many ways but it can also be difficult to find common ground and build trust as colleagues. Nothing bridges gaps more than making an effort to follow some of the other culture's customs.
One of the simplest goodwill building gestures you can do in Japan is the act of giving omiyage (お土産). Omiyage are souvenirs, but in a work place context they are little treats that you bring for your co-workers when you come back from a business trip or a vacation out of town. Additionally, if you are going on a business trip somewhere else, you also bring your hosts omiyage.
Omiyage is big business in Japan. Everywhere you go, especially at large train stations and airports where people are in transit, there are beautiful shops selling gorgeous omiyage. Different areas have local specialties, but some things, like fancy rice crackers, are popular just about everywhere.
I won't even pretend to know all of the intricacies of Japanese gift giving, but in general you want give omiyage that is consumable, beautifully packaged and has the contents individually wrapped so it is easy to distribute within the group you are visiting. It is also best if the treat you are giving reflects the place you are coming from or is locally produced.
All of this causes me no end of a conundrum when I visit Japan. When I was living in Japan and would travel domestically, finding something nice to bring back to my group was no problem. Coming from the U.S. on business trip is a whole different matter. First, I usually end up visiting a ton of people when I am on business trip so I have to bring tons of omiyage which can be very pricey. I just don't have it in my budget to spend $500 for treats. Additionally, since this isn't a custom in the U.S. finding something that looks pretty, is tasty and is individually wrapped is next to impossible. I always try my best but because I am not Japanese and giving omiyage is not expected from me it is okay if my omiyage isn't exactly Japanese style. The point is that I make an effort to give omiyage and follow Japanese custom which is what is important.
Figuring out what to give on this trip was difficult. I had just used my standby go-to omiyage of Ghiradelli chocolate squares (individually wrapped = check, edible = check, something produced in the U.S. = check, won't make me go bankrupt = check, beautiful packaging = so-so) which meets most of the criteria when I was visiting in December so I didn't want to use that again. I ended up getting several boxes of large round wafer cookies with various fillings. The box wasn't exactly beautiful but looked nice enough and the treats seemed pretty tasty. I also got some individually wrapped chocolate truffles but they melted in my luggage. Yeah, I know I am an idiot for bringing chocolate to Japan in the summer. Anyway, luckily I brought enough of the wafer cookies since my checked bag was half full of them.
As a side note, have you ever been in a duty free shop and seen packages of chocolates emblazoned with U.S.A. and pictures of American flags and the Statue of Liberty? Despite not achieving the beautiful packaging requirement, those boxes of chocolates clearly indicate that the traveler is coming from the U.S. and are being marketed for omiyage. One time when I was desperate I bought some of them for a business trip and the chocolates were terrible. I'll never do that again!
The upside of this gift giving business culture is that I often have a chance to enjoy being on the receiving end of these little treats. When I was working in Japan, after we would have a company wide holiday I would come back to work and it was like a little buffet of delicious treats in our office area with everyone having brought something in. Being back home in the U.S. whenever we have a Japanese visitor I get to have a little bite sized tastes of things that I loved in Japan but are hard to find in America.
When it is all said and done I really love this Japanese tradition. It's a nice simple way that you show your colleagues that you respect them and appreciate working with them. Plus, I get to give and receive treats. Any tradition that involves me getting to eat tasty things is awesome in my book.