What’s the Deal with Valentine’s Day in Japan?

On February 14, 2015

To put it briefly, Valentine’s Day is the time of the year when Japanese women give chocolates to everyone they know. Women are even encouraged to send chocolates to not just their friends and lover, but also their favorite characters from dramas, manga and animes.

That’s right, you don’t even have to be real to receive chocolates from admirers. The manga writer Takeshi Konomi, for example, has made a competition out of the chocolates that his popular Prince of Tennis characters receive (usually in the 100,000s) and publishes the result in the manga.

How did it all start?

One of the strange things to Western people is that Japan even has a Valentine’s Day. After all, the celebration of a martyr could be considered a strange thing for a non-Christian country to import. The most likely origin of this festival in Japan is that it started as an attempt to encourage excessive spending.

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The arrival of the festival dates back to the post-war years when spending on luxury goods was low. Kobe’s renowned Morozoff Ltd take credit (or blame depending on your perspective) for being the ones to spot that romance, a growing interest in the West, and the giving of chocolate could be connected using Valentine’s Day – and used to sell their products.

Lost in translation

A mistranslation lead to chocolates being marketed as a gift that women gave the guy(s) in their life. The problem for the confectionary companies was that, while this error allowed companies to cash in the lucrative office lady market, it presumably resulted in the marketing managers kicking themselves for leaving the wealthy business men out of the mix.

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That was until the marketers at a rival company worked out a way to include men in the spending frenzy by creating the terribly-named “Marshmallow Day.” Ishimuramanseido are the company who can be originally credited with this new development. The most likely origins of this new holiday were a way to, surprise surprise, increase their sales of marshmallows.

What’s White Day?

Eventually, fate repaid them back for their opportunism, as they saw their own holiday get renamed to White Day and their white marshmallows edged out in favor of white chocolate. Still, Marshmallow Day did inspire a song by the kings of pop, Mr. Children, so at least they got a consolation prize!

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Give and take

Because of the links to consumerism and Japan’s complex gift-giving culture, Valentine’s Day isn’t simple for either the men or the women. The word associated with giving Valentine’s Day gifts to people 義理 (giri) is an interesting word in Japan, as it has a subtle meaning of give-and-take. Some dictionaries even translate it as a “debt of gratitude.”

Married women loathe both holidays as they have to make chocolates for their coworkers on Valentine’s Day and then help make their hapless husbands return gifts on White Day!

Because of this, many women dread Valentine’s Day. In order to show they are giving appropriately, a lot of women feel pressured to prepare homemade chocolates or unique dishes, and they understandably baulk at the time required in the kitchen.

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A debt to pay

It’s not just women that feel the pressure. The idea of having a “debt of gratitude” can be stressful to the recipients of the chocolates too. In order to play it safe, many recommend the rule of “三倍返し” for White Day (sanban-gaeshi, or giving back three times what you received). This phrase’s origin can likely be traced back to the Japanese bubble period when conspicuous consumption and excess was the name of the game.

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This excessive consumerism also garnered the term ”エビでタイを釣る” (ebi de tai wo tsuru – using a shrimp to catch a big fish). This expression is often attached to White Day and refers to women who give a small gift in the hope that their boss will feel obliged to give them something bigger when White Day comes along.

For people, like myself, who are not caught up in the mystique of Valentine’s Day, this holiday instead becomes an opportunity to watch all the complicated rituals involved in something so seemingly simple play out. However, as one of my Japanese colleagues pointed out to me, life isn’t so simple for Western people either. “You guys have to choose the right gift for the woman you love?” He told me, “Now that is really scary!”

Updated: 02/14/16


Grooving to Japan's rhythm.

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