Importing Holidays – Valentine’s

Since last Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I thought I ought to post at least something about it, since it is a pretty unique aspect of the Japanese culture. Be warned, I’m not the biggest proponent of customs like this one, so here you will probably not really find a rosy telling of how everybody gets handmade chocolate.

While in most other countries, Valentine’s is decidedly for couples only, and even then mostly just used as a justification to go on a more expensive date, in Japan everybody participates. Sure, couples might go on fancy dates on Valentine’s in Japan as well, but generally, the day is all about chocolate. Specifically about women giving men chocolate. Smells of a marketing campaign? Well, you would be completely correct on that one, according to Wikipedia the act of giving chocolate was promoted by confectionary makers in the 1950s, and apparently, it caught on (not the most reliable of sources, but I’m not writing an essay). It must have been some pretty impressive marketing because Valentine’s day in Japan is now not only about couples, women will give chocolate to all sorts of men in their life, not only their significant other. Family (I got chocolate from my Japanese sister and mother-in-law, yay), friends, even co-workers, everybody can expect to receive tasty treats. Starting around the middle of January, department stores et al. will start selling large quantities of chocolate. Only on very rare occasions will somebody actually go through the trouble of making chocolate treats by themselves.

The true marketing masterstroke, however, is in the fact that they simply did it again, just a month later. Enter “White Day”, a Japan-exclusive custom observed on the 14th of March. While on Valentine’s Day, women are supposed to give chocolate to men, on White Day the roles are reversed. Now men are supposed to give chocolate to women. Originally, you were supposed to give white chocolate, marshmallows, or other white sweets – hence the name – but by now that custom seems to have been eroded and men will give all sorts of chocolate. If they give any at all, I have lived in Japan for around four years now and I can’t remember ever seeing a man giving chocolate to women on White Day. My best guess would be that it is a generational thing, with younger generations not really following this particular custom while maybe older generations still do.

Anyway, a rather short post about the odd way of celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan. While it is most certainly an odd holiday everywhere in the world – couples should not really need a special day to celebrate their relationship – the pure commercialization of the Japanese variant has always been off-putting to me. If I give chocolate to my sister and mother-in-law (as I am supposed to, per the White Day marketing campaign), it’s because I like them and want to thank them, not simply going through the motions.

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