Happy Valentine’s Day! There might not be a good translation for this phrase in Japanese, but Valentine’s Day (and White Day) in Japan is still a big deal. A big deal… but a little different from Western countries.
First of all, Japanese Valentine’s Day is “one-way traffic.” In Western countries, people exchange presents or flowers on the day (usually a man is supposed to get something for his special lady), but in Japan, ONLY women send presents to men! To understand this phenomenon, you need to get to know some “traditional” Japanese women. Japanese women are (were) supposed to be modest and passive in their relationship with their male partners. For those “traditional,” “modest,” and “passive” Japanese women, Valentine’s Day used to be the only day that they could make a declaration of love!! Please note that I wrote “used to be” here. Nowadays, they’re not so modest and passive anymore, and they can say すきです (I like you!) to guys year-round. So, the “one-way” Valentine’s day is just an old habit now.
Another unique fact is that the presents are usually chocolates. Why chocolates? The answer is simple — the Japanese sweets companies did a good job with their marketing! In the 1960s, some companies introduced the idea of Valentine’s Day to Japan, and they encouraged people to send chocolates as gifts. Surprisingly, now, 20% of annual consumption of chocolate in Japan occurs on Valentine’s Day.
With such an enormous market for chocolate in February, many retailers are getting more creative with what they are offering. How about this sushi-shaped chocolate? Or maybe a cake covered in REAL diamonds???
Of course, chocolates for “serious declarations of love,” or 本命チョコ (ほんめいチョコ) are only a small part of that 20%. That’s right — the chocolates for Valentine’s Day come in several varieties. 義理チョコ (ぎりチョコ) is sent as a kind of “social duty,” and 友チョコ (ともチョコ) is to be exchanged among girlfriends. Now there is even 自己チョコ (じこチョコ) for men to buy and eat by themselves. (Sad, isn’t it?!)
Boys, do you think you might like Valentine’s Day in Japan better? Well, watch out! A month after Valentine’s Day, you’ll have to deal with ホワイト・デー – “White Day” on March 14th! This holiday was invented by Japan in 1978 to complement Valentine’s Day. Today it is celebrated by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. On White Day, boys have to send gifts back to girls as おかえし (return gifts). Originally, the gifts were supposed to be “marshmallow covered chocolates” meaning “I’m sending chocolate covered with my love.” But some girls want boys to spend more money! You might be expected to send some pricier gifts – even jewelry! – because of the expectations encoded in words like 倍返し (ばいがえし) and 三倍返し (さんばいがえし) which mean “giving back a gift double (倍) or triple (三倍) the value of the one that you received.” Scary, isn’t it?!