No matter the cultural or religious background, Valentine’s Day is both an anticipated (and dreaded) celebration of love and romance around the world. Marked on February 14th, the holiday is one that traditionally offers a day to share appreciation through heartfelt actions and gifts. But this wholesome activity is as much a commercial holiday as it is a cultural one. Since its religious establishment in the 14th century, Valentine’s Day has slowly evolved to become a major source of economic activity in the form of cards, chocolates, flowers and jewelry to promote the physical significance of love. Much like other Western holidays, Valentine’s Day has traveled and left an imprint on other cultures, the simplicity of the principles behind it allowing for different countries to mold the holiday to their own interpretations of it. Japan in particular has stood as a very distinct and avid receiver of Valentine’s, the culture shaping and augmenting it to become one of the most abhorred and awaited days of the year.
The romantic principles of Valentine’s day originated in the 18th century, in which lovers expressed their affection for each other through symbolic gestures. Since the beginnings of its mass production in the mid-1800s, couples exchanged gifts with no distinct set of regulations– this spread to other English- speaking countries throughout the 19th century. Only in the later 20th century did the customs spread to other countries, and Valentine’s Day left a commercialist impact in Japan more than anywhere else.
The holiday was first introduced in Japan in 1936 by the confectionary company Morozoff Ltd. The company originally promoted their products to foreigners new to Japan, and expanded to making heart-shaped chocolates in the ‘50s. From there, Valentine’s Day boomed, the hype that encompasses the day remaining more than prevalent in modern society. What makes Japan different from the US in their approach: women give men chocolates. This custom–which originated from a translation error by the chocolate company during their initial campaign– is an unspoken understanding, with girls and women obligated to present the men in their lives with chocolate. This, of course, is not limited to boyfriends and husbands– brothers, friends, teachers and fathers also get to feel the appreciation through hand-made or store-bought sweets. Understandably, on a day where classrooms, offices and other settings are populated with public sentimental gestures, it’s no wonder that the excitement of being recognized tops the want of simply receiving a gift. Japan has developed a stigma around the inability to receive chocolates, that guys who get nothing on the day are undesirable romantically and socially. In this way, Valentine’s Day has become equal parts a romantic and horrific holiday, people looking to the date in either confidence or in fear. To avoid this, the concept of “giri-choco” or obligation chocolates, was born. To avoid hurt feelings, women tend to give men they feel unromantic tendencies towards obligatory chocolates, saving their “honmei-choco”, or homemade chocolate, for their loved ones.
Through the stress on men to receive and women to give, another holiday was established in Japan to compliment Valentine’s Day. White Day, which takes place one month later, serves as a chance for women to finally be on the receiving end. Though purely a marketing strategy dating back to the early ‘80s, White Day is of equal importance to Valentine’s Day– overlooking it would be the same as disregarding the efforts that women put into it. On this day, men are expected to return gifts that are at least two or three times more valuable than the gifts received on Valentine’s– the concepts of these two Japanese holidays creating a sense of competition that strays from the traditional image of chocolate cherubs and Hallmark cards.
Both days deliver a significant marketing punch, and many Japanese chocolate companies rely on the uproar that revolves around Valentines and White Day. Valentine’s day has evolved to become something more than a simple declaration of love. But whether it’s obligatory, genuine or shunned entirely, the Valentine’s celebra-thon is woven into the fundamentals of Japanese culture and its aesthetics.
Although Valentine’s and White Day will have passed, catch some chocolatey treats for you or your loved ones at the ROYCE and Zuzu Confectionery vendors held at Sakura Sunday on April 15th in West Fairmont Park.