If you’re not a fan of Valentine’s Day or the associated pressure of gift-giving, February 15th probably brings with it a sense of relief. While Valentine’s Day may have come and gone for another year, here in Japan we have one more week of lovey dovey displays and music in stores as we gear up for Valentine’s Day x 2, better known as “White Day,” held annually on March 14th.
So how does it all work?
In a nutshell, Valentine’s Day in Japan is the day when women give gifts to men, while White Day (a month later) is when men reciprocate by giving gifts to women.
On the surface, this may seem like just a super-extended, even smarter-marketing version of the more-or-less equivalent Valentine’s Day celebrations the world over when couples generally give gifts as a mutual exchange.
Clever marketing, certainly, but there’s a bit more to it than a simple present swap.
Let’s first back-track a little to Valentine’s Day. For the Japanese, Valentine’s Day is a day when women give gifts to men – both for romantic and platonic relationships. Women give what is known as honmei choco (“favorite” or “only one” chocolates – often handmade and expensive) to their boyfriends or husbands, or to someone they want to express romantic interest in. However, they also give giri-choco or “obligation chocolates” as a social courtesy to male bosses, co-workers and friends. According to a recent Japan Times article, Japanese women were set to buy on average 10.4 boxes of giri-choco in 2013, almost three more than last year in a continuing upward trend.
The idea of White Day was first conceptualized in 1977 by a Fukuoka-based confectionery company looking to increase sales. By this time, Valentine’s Day had already started to permeate modern-day Japanese culture, yet businesses found that Valentine’s Day was more popular with women, and it was they who were mostly purchasing gifts for men.
That year the company marketed marshmallows to men as an “answer day” to Valentine’s, calling it “Marshmallow Day.” This played very nicely to the reciprocal nature of Japanese society and culture. Give an unexpected gift to a Japanese person and just see how quickly a gift is returned! While the concept was culturally fitting, the marshmallow idea didn’t really take off. And if women were going to wait a whole month for their favor to be returned, they wanted something a bit better than a few lousy marshmallows.
And so began the concept of sanbai gaeshi (三倍返し), literally “thrice the return,” used to describe the expectation that the White Day gift should be 2-3 times more expensive than the Valentine’s one. Of course, more businesses got on board and the first “White Day” was officially celebrated the following year in 1978. The usage of the word “white” is said to be in reference to the holiday’s marshmallow origins, as well as pure teen love and the color of sugar in general. That’s why giving “white” gifts such as white chocolate is still a popular “tradition” today. However, the market is now wide open to any type of chocolate. Other popular gifts include flowers, jewelery and lingerie.
Now, I’m sure some reading this are rejoicing while others are already tisking at the imbalance in the scenario, yet White Day is more complicated than getting something really nice for your female partner. Remember all those “obligation chocolates” you received too, guys? Yes, you are expected to return all of those too! While the “thrice the return” rule applies here also, when it comes to giri-choco, returning something of equal or slightly higher value is generally accepted, as it is simply a courtesy gift after all.
In most cases, hopefully the relationship between the giver and receiver is clear and hence the intention behind the gift also. But what if you receive a gift on Valentine’s Day from someone whose relationship to you isn’t so clearly defined, perhaps a potential new love or maybe an unexpectedly nice gift from a friend who you hadn’t thought of as a romantic interest before? Is their gift a “giri choco” or “honmei choco“? And so begins a month of contemplation, or perhaps potential awkwardness, as one tries to decipher the intention behind the gift.
Things gets further complicated by the fact that many women these days make all of their Valentine’s gifts themselves. With an ever-increasing number of people to buy for, you can imagine why. So one of the key indicators of distinguishing between the two, home-made vs. something just bought from the store, becomes somewhat blurred. In fact, Internet forums are hit up by men throughout Japan during this period to ask for help in determining the intention behind gifts received. Get it wrong, and it could end up being an embarrassing social situation.
For those in relationships, returning something of equal value is said to be an indication that you are ending the relationship, and generally gives the sense that you are putting yourself in a position of power. Giving marshmallows funnily enough, the candy that started it all, is said to be an insult and indicates that you don’t wish to pursue the relationship.
So be careful gents, your candy present may say a whole lot more in Japan than you think!
What’s your take on White Day? Love it, hate it? Or do you have any interesting stories to share? Let us know in the comments section below!