Well, it’s nearly that time. Two days to go! I mean we’ve been waiting for so long and finally, finally it’s here. No, I’m actually not talking about the Shinkansen, although obviously I’m PSYCHED (how could I not be, with the countdown boards and the complementary ice cream cakes at lunch and announcements and so much okay seriously guys calm down.) It’s White Day! What’s that, you say? You know all about it already? Well, I didn’t when I first came to Japan, so today I’m doing a holiday intro because it’s still really interesting. I`m sure you`ve heard of Valentine`s Day, regardless of how you may feel about it, and maybe you`re savvy enough about Japan to have heard of White Day as well. If you`re a first year like me, however, you may not of have come across White Day before, nor the customs surrounding it, so here’s the low down.
White Day is held on March 14th, exactly a month after Valentine`s Day. (Yes, that means that this year it`s going to be on the same day as the Shinkansen opening. I like to think of it as JR`s White Day present to the city of Kanazawa. Hey gurrrl). It`s actually celebrated in a number of other Asian countries as well; South Korea, Taiwan and China all observe festivities, and South Korea even has Black Day on April 15th for all the singles who want to get together and bemoan (celebrate?) their lack of presents and general singleness on Valentines and/or White Day.
The different kinds of chocolate that might have been given on Valentine`s Day each have an appropriate response, whether it`s the honmei–choco of True Love ™, the giri-choco to your boss and sometimes your coworkers, or the tomo-choco which is an expression of affection for friends or “friends”.
There`s a term in Japanese sanbai gaeshi/三倍返し which literally means “three times the return”. The idea is that men on White Day are supposed to give a present in return that is three times the value of the present that was received on Valentines. This can be quite problematic and definitely expensive if the chocolate given was super fancy or handmade – in fact, some housewives have been known to bitterly bemoan this time of year because after having had to spent hours of time making the requisite handmade chocolates for all their coworkers, March 14th comes around and they have to do it all again in triplicate for their husband`s coworkers!
As you might be getting, the actual feeling behind these chocolates is pretty different to the way most people think about Valentines chocolates in the UK (the only country I`m qualified to talk about, although I`m guessing it`s similar in other English speaking countries?). It all has to do with giri or social obligation, and I advise you to google that term sometime if you feel like learning more about this really fascinating aspect of the sometimes-perplexing makeup of Japanese social mores.
The history of White Day is also pretty interesting, and a nice demonstration of the way consumerist greed can be happily marketed as romantic intentions. Way back in 1977, the National Confectionary Industry Association had a problem. Valentines` Day and it`s associated chocolate giving was already established, and they realized that someone needed to do something about all those men who just weren`t buying chocolate and sweets/candy as much as women. But how were they going to persuade men, with their totally manly lack of sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) to buy sugary goodness?
At the same time, a marshmallow company in Fukuoka was looking for ways to increase its turnover, and hit upon the idea of an “answer day” for Valentines. “Marshmallow Day” it proclaimed, was when men should return the feelings of the women who had bought them chocolate on Valentines Day. It was a commercial success, and when 1978 rolled around the National Confectionary Day jumped on the idea and changed the name to “White Day”. It worked! Men were successfully enticed to spend more money on confectionary and over time the usual gift changed from marshmallows to white chocolate, with dark chocolate, candies and cake also popular. A kick in the teeth for marshmallow companies, but such is life. Non-edible gifts are also given, such as flowers, jewelry or white lingerie.
White Day also happens, by chance or design, to fall on the same day as the rarely recognized anymore International Marriage Day. This lovely historical commemoration is for when the law was first changed to allow a Japanese person and a foreigner to marry, in 1873. Before this time it was pretty difficult if not impossible to marry a foreigner if you were Japanese, and even after the law was passed (this was pre-Meiji Constitution), international marriage required a permit and an official surrender of social standing (and being written out of the koseki etc, etc). Isn`t that romantic?
As both Valentine`s Day and White Day have fallen/will fall on Saturdays this year I`ve been denied the chance to watch my students go through this fascinating social ritual, but talking to my teachers has been an education in itself, let me tell you. Have you seen or heard any good stories about Valentines or White Day this year or in the past?
Francesca is a first-year ALT in Kanazawa City. She likes Mr Donut, collecting rillakuma merchandise, and watching way too many youtube videos.