The observance of Valentine’s Day may arouse opposition in countries like India and Iran, where critics complain that the practice represents a decadent Western custom, but it is quite popular in Japan.
However, as with almost every other foreign import to Japan, Valentine’s Day takes on rather unique characteristics – in the Land of the Rising Sun, Valentine’s Day generally involves girls and women handing out presents, usually chocolates, to the men in their lives as a show of love, affection or respect.
Moreover, if the gift-giving is done out of love (to a boyfriend or husband), rather than out of duty (to a boss or a father), the dessert treat is usually hand-made or pricey, thereby indicating that one took the time and trouble to craft a meaningful, personal present rather than using something cheap and/or store-bought.
Namiko Abe, an author on About.com, wrote that the holiday is largely promoted by chocolate and candy companies to boost their sales – and it has worked beautifully. She cited that Japanese chocolate sellers generate more than half of their annual revenue during the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.
But unlike in the West, she added, Valentine’s Day cards are largely dispensed with and the traditional wish “Happy Valentine’s Day” is ignored.
Alan Stokes, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper of Australia, wrote that Valentine’s Day allows the traditionally reserved women of Japan to briefly step outside of social constraints and openly exhibit affection.
According to Stokes, the holiday was first observed in Japan in the late 1950s and has remained popular ever since.
However, Stokes also sees a darker facet to Japan’s embrace of Valentine’s Day.
“The theory is they [chocolate gifts] reflect a female's lower place in the Japanese social/workplace pecking order,” he wrote.
Stokes cited that in 1993, Canadian anthropologist Millie Creighton found that that if the chocolate ritual had been introduced directly as a Western-style mutual exchange of gifts, ‘'it would never have caught on because the men would never have gotten involved, and if the men had not, the women would have been too embarrassed to do so.”
Valentine’s Day in Japan also has a flip side – exactly one month later, on March 14, the country hosts something called a “White Day” in which the men hand out gifts to the females in their lives – in this case, the largesse may be chocolates, cookies, flowers, jewelry or some other trinket of affection. Traditionally, the March 14 gift should be of greater monetary value than what was received on Feb. 14.
Alas, “White Day,” which has no apparent Western antecedent, is not quite as popular as Valentine’s Day.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.