Well, I made it through another Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan without getting divorced. My Japanese husband very nearly committed suicide our first year together because I gave him a valentine card but no chocolate, which he saw as a sure sign that I didn’t love him. Meanwhile, I was ready to pack my bags and get on the first plane back to Los Angeles because he didn’t give me any valentine at all. How the heck was I supposed to know he was waiting a month for an occasion called “White Day?” Please enlighten us about this Japanese holiday.
Susan F., Kawasaki
For the benefit of readers who have no idea what you’re talking about, let me explain that while in most Western countries Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) is an occasion for just about anybody to exchange gifts of affection, in Japan it is primarily a day when women give chocolate to the special men in their lives. Japanese men do not give gifts on Valentine’s Day, but exactly a month later, on what’s called White Day, they are supposed to give a present to any woman who gave them something on Valentine’s Day. This is an entirely “Made in Japan” custom, but many Japanese (including your husband, it would seem) don’t realize that.
Valentine’s Day has a long tradition in Western culture, but Cupids and hearts didn’t appear in Japan until well into the 20th century. Various companies tried to introduce it as a marketing tactic, including Kobe confectioner Morozoff, which is believed to have placed the first-ever Valentine’s Day ad in Japan in 1936, targeting foreign residents in an English-language publication. Isetan Department Store attempted a “Valentine Sale” in 1958. The concept finally took off in the 1970s when marketers began promoting inexpensive valentine chocolates as a means for schoolgirls to express their interest in a boy without having to say so in words.
My friend Itsuko, who was a teenager at the time, recalls these early valentines as the epitome of pure love. “I was madly in love, so I put chocolate in the boy’s locker,” she confessed to me, sighing 20-some years after the fact. “I was too shy to put my name on it, but I prayed he would know it was from me and he did!”
But Japanese people never leave well enough alone when it comes to gift giving, and Valentine’s Day has strayed from those sweet simple roots and gotten a lot more complicated. Now there’s the infamous giri choko (obligation chocolate), which women give — with no promise of love — to coworkers or classmates. And trading on the Japanese compulsion to return all gifts with something of equal or greater value, marketers started pressuring the guys to make okaeshi (proper payback).
A few pioneers paved the way to a payback day, including a candy manufacturer that tried to promote “Marshmallow Day” as the opportunity for boys to respond to their valentine love calls. But things didn’t get rolling until 1980 when an association of candy manufacturers launched a campaign designating March 14 as the day for men to give chocolate to women. The inaugural slogan was Ai ni Kotaeru White Day (Answer Love on White Day).
In the course of my research I came across a photo of the original planning committee. I don’t know what I was expecting — a female conspiracy? — but I was somehow disappointed to see that the great minds behind White Day were just typical oyaji (middle-aged men), a cabal of gray suits at the Keio Plaza Hotel. According to the official White Day Web site, the committee chose the name “White Day” because white is the color of purity, and they hoped to evoke images of pure, sweet teen love. It helped that white is also the color of sugar, the main ingredient of chocolate.
Before long, every marketer in Japan worth his or her sugar had jumped on the White Day bandwagon. Although chocolate is still popular, men also purchase jewelry, accessories or clothing as White Day gifts. In fact, many women have the expectation that a modest valentine chocolate purchase will net them something more expensive come White Day, a practice described with the expression “ebi de tai wo tsuru (fishing with shrimp for a sea bream),” because the catch is worth a whole lot more than the bait. The going rate seems to be that the White Day present should cost three times as much as the valentine.