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The Genius of Japanese Valentine’s Day

It was my first Valentine’s day as a married man. I had only been in the country for a few months, and was unfamiliar with the language and culture. My wife was picking some things up at the store, leaving me alone when the doorbell rang. It was my sister in-law, holding a box of what appeared to be handmade chocolates. She sheepishly wished me a happy Valentine’s day and said she had made the chocolates for me. Many a letter to Penthouse Forum begin just as innocently. Taken aback with no exit strategy, I awkwardly thanked her and went inside to hide the gift from my wife. Just then the doorbell rang again, this time it was my mother in-law carrying another confectionery assortment. I had seen “The Graduate,” I knew how these stories end. Just as I was starting to question just what sort of family I had married into, my wife called asking if I had been at home to receive the presents from her family. This served as a poignant introduction, that things in Japan, particularly involving romance, are not always as they seem.

To say that Valentine’s Day in Japan is celebrated differently than in the west incorrectly presumes that there is a standard way western countries observe the holiday. There is no consensus about how to celebrate it, or when, or even why. Brazil for instance, celebrates Valentine’s day on June 12 as February is too close to Carnival. The Eastern Orthodox observation of Valentine’s day is in July, depending on which St. Valentine is being celebrated. Valentine’s Day is not always about romantic love either, as many countries in Latin America and Scandinavia consider it a holiday of friendship. Americans may give roses and greeting cards, but in parts of Europe it is much more popular to give keys.

In Japan the holiday has been adapted to nest more snuggly into the broader gift-giving culture, balancing sincere generosity and rigid social obligations. The way this is done is a fantastic bit of marketing brilliance. With gifts limited to romantic lovers, the average person would only buy one gift, and many nothing at all. Remove the romantic restraint and people can buy much more. Market chocolates toward working women and suddenly there is an obligation to buy chocolate for all co-workers. This custom, called “giri choco”(obligatory chocolate) and in some cases “cho-giri choco” (extremely obligatory chocolate) has skyrocketed chocolate sales in the country. As a matter of fact, Valentine’s Day alone accounts for over half of all chocolate sales in the country. Newer trends like “tomo-choco” for friends, or “jibun-choco” for oneself have boosted sales even further. From a marketing standpoint, removing the romantic connotations from Valentine’s Day has been an unmitigated success. Katherine Rupp writes in her book Gift-giving in Japan: cash, connections, cosmologies, “in a 1991 survey by Morozoff Ltd., 84 percent of women gave chocolate to “people who help them” and only 28 percent of those same women to their lovers or spouses.”

The other bit of genius was to separate the holiday into two days – one made for women and the other for men to return the favor, appealing to the Japanese custom of ”okaeshi” or return-gifts. This custom, later dubbed “white day” most likely came about by a combination of luck and strategy. When the Kobe based Morozoff company launched the nation’s first Valentine ad campaign in 1936, they originally targeted foreigners, and thus advertised in English. According to one prominent theory, a Morozoff employee may have simply mistranslated the information when they began marketing the holiday to Japanese customers, inadvertently making Valentine’s Day only for women. In 1958 when the Isetan department store started promoting the holiday to counter the lull between the traditional holidays of New Years and Girls Day, they and other chocolatiers simply followed Morozoff’s lead.

It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that “White Day” was created to compliment Valentine’s Day, “created” being the operative word in this sentence. Men in suits sat in boardrooms and planning committees dreaming up White Day. Specifically, those men were the National Confectionary Industry Association, and in 1978 they released a massive marketing campaign called “ai ni kotaeru white day” or respond to love with White Day.” Fresh on the heels of a failed attempt by marshmallow maker Ishumura Sanseido, to create a “marshmallow day” in which men profess their gratitude with marshmallows, the confectionary association set their sights much higher. They based their campaign on the Japanese proverb “Ebi de tai wo tsuru” (えびで鯛を釣る), – catching snapper with shrimp – so that men now are expected to spend at least three times the price of the gifts they received on Valentine’s Day.

The faux-holiday soon became a sensation that spilled over into neighboring countries as well. As a result China now spends more than any other country on the combined holidays and Korean women consistently spend more than their Japanese counterparts. In fact Koreans have even created a third holiday on April 14th called “Black Day” for people who didn’t receive Valentine or White Day gifts. White Day even became popular in Taiwan, albeit in reverse where men buy Valentine gifts and women reply on White Day.

For many people Valentine’s Day and White Day are more of a hassle than a holiday, but you have got to give it to the folks who engineered these massive annual spending sprees. Amid plummeting stock prices and a weak yen, perhaps finance minister Taro Aso should step aside and let these virtual Willy Wonkas run things for a while.

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