Valentine’s day: n. a mass-societal ritual where petrified men manufacture tangible manifestations of undying devotion and where the sinister cabal run by Hallmark, Hershey’s, and the National Restaurant Association wins out. Posted by Derek Abbott on his Wickedictionary page.
In Japan they have taken the Western ritual of Valentines day and typically “Japanified” it in bizarre ways. Similar to western countries, it is a massive commercial chocolate and sweets industry selling day.
However, it is MUCH better for men in Japan. “Valentines” day on February 14th is for women ONLY to give chocolates to men. But not just husband or lover. They should give to every man in their office also. So there is the strange concept of “true love” chocolates and “obligation” chocolates. Of course it is not labeled as such, they are all beautifully packaged. But the obligation chocolates are small and not expensive whereas the real love chocolates are more expensive. Something which I think is good in Japan is that the “highest” level of love chocolate need not be expensive. If you receive a hand made chocolate from someone then you know that person is really in love with you.
Of course as is customary in Japan, every present should be returned. So there is a “White Day” in Japan after Valentines day and this is where the man will return a gift to the woman. For colleagues, similar to Valentines day, the present will normally be small “obligatory” chocolates. However for real love gifts there is a much wider range of gifts on White day, including flowers, jewelry, etc. One good thing is you need not give obligation chocolates to your women colleagues at work if they didn’t give you one on Valentines day, so it is definitely less stressful for men. However if you received a real love chocolate you had better make a special return gift (which again may be an expensive gift or may not cost anything if you make something yourself).
Over all I perceive the Japanese take on Valentines day as showing some interesting aspects of Japanese culture, namely:
1. The concept of “honne” and “tatemae”, namely public feelings or those feelings expected by society, and true feelings (which are normally not expressed in public). All Japanese children are taught this from a young age and it allows for a smooth running society. This becomes exemplified in the “obligation” and “real love” Valentines day chocolates.
2. The cultural tradition of returning gifts seen in the ladies Valentines day followed by men returning of gifts on white day. Whether it is a birthday or wedding present one is obligated to return another gift of about half or more of the value. That is why giving a present in Japan can sometimes create more burden than pleasure, especially if it is expensive.
I once had a strange experience where I received a small souvenir gift from a colleague at work in Tokyo. I returned a small souvenir from Australia. This caused him to give me another gift, I think some chocolate, upon which I gave him another gift. To cut a long story short this gift giving escalated over several months and at the end I literally received a very expensive Japanese leg of ham, expensive sausages, and other expensive foods which I carried in a large bag to my house and took weeks to eat. I can’t remember what gift I gave in return but I think it was so big it ended that “gift war”. We almost needed Henry Kissinger to help solve the gift escalation.
3. Wabi-sabi: Although the Valentine and White Days are certainly commercial extravaganzas, there is still the concept that the highest form of showing your love is to make something with your own hands, which might not cost any money. I think this is an expression of the Japanese cultural concept of Wabi-sabi, where small, delicate, old, and natural yet imperfect things are highly valued as beautiful. Their beauty is because of their imperfect and natural state. I appreciate this concept which does counter-balance the rampant consumerism of modern society.