Saturday, March 21, 2015

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What is White Day in Japan? (Howaito Dē, ホワイトデー, 14 March)

Every year around the world florists, chocolatiers, and soft cuddly toy manufacturers make millions of dollars on the one single day – Valentine’s Day. Men or women can give presents or cards in secret or in public – except in Japan. Why? Because the Japanese also celebrate White Day, a somewhat unusual reverse Valentine’s Day.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of White Day, and only ended up here on a ‘fluffy teddy bear’ google search gone wrong. That’s ok, we all make mistakes, but if you keep reading, by the end of this page you will have learnt something fascinating, namely the origin and customs of White Day in Japan. But if really want to know about White Day, you will also have to learn a little bit about the way in which the Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day. So here goes.

Valentine’s Day in Japan

While the rest of the world celebrates Valentine’s Day by giving flowers, and other anatomically incorrect heart shaped gifts, Japan reserves the fourteenth of February for women, that is for women buying the gifts. How this role-reversal happened is not exactly clear, but some blame a deliberate translation error by the man who introduced the idea to Japan. But in any event, Valentine’s Day in Japan is now marketed as exclusively an opportunity for women to express their love to men.

If you don’t believe me on this point, why not see what happens when a man buys some cheap chocolate on 13 February and asks the store clerk “Can you wrap this up for me? It’s for Valentine’s Day”. The look of confusion, shock and/or horror, will be enough to show you how strong this custom is, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some women may refuse to wrap it, or perhaps even sell it.

But another difference in Japan is that giving presents on Valentine’s Day is not solely for romantic purposes. You can buy different types of chocolate for different people. Of course there is the honmei-choko (本命チョコ, “favourite chocolate”, or “chocolate of love”), which is romantic and usually handmade given by the female to her ‘favourite’. But there is also the giri-choko (義理チョコ, “obligatory chocolate” or “courtesy chocolate”), which is usually store bought and not that expensive, given to people you have to, such as bosses, co-workers, or male friends. And there is even the tomo-choko (友チョコ ‘friend chocolate’), a more recent, but successful addition to the chocolate giving scene in Japan, given by women to their female friends.

So what happens on White Day?

White Day is exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, where males not only get the opportunity to give gifts and cards and confectionary to those from whom they received them on Valentine’s Day, but it is actually expected. Reciprocal gifts must be at least two to three times more valuable than the February gifts, namely sanbai gaeshi (三倍返し), which can romantically and lovingly be translated as ‘give back three times or else’. In fact to give a present of the same value could be a sign that you are trying to end the relationship. And there is only one documented case in the entire history of Japan where no gift was given in reply – Japan’s highest criminal court is currently hearing that man’s death row appeal.

But how did it all start?

White Day was only recently introduced, namely in 1978 by a Fukuoka based confectionary company which marketed marshmallows to men on March 14 as a reply to the women only Valentine phenomenon. While “Marshmallow day” (マシュマロデー) was not a huge success, the Japanese National Confectionary Industry Association, (an organisation not usually known for its short and succinct naming ability), renamed it 'White Day'. The idea took off, and has been growing ever since. The colour white was apparently chosen to represent purity, and/or possibly sugar, when in reality it probably still represents the failed Mr Marshmallow bid.

So what are the common mistakes on White Day?

There are more than 136 mysterious social rules governing White Day in Japan, such as Rule 58 which states: “Don’t hand over giri-choco to a girl after 4pm with your left hand while wearing a yellow tie, because if it happens to be a Tuesday with high humidity, that could be interpreted as a marriage proposal”. But in my view if you follow these three rules, which I have called “White Day for dummies”, I think you should be fine:

1. If you have received a Valentine’s Day present, give something back.
2. Whatever you give back, make sure it is much nicer, better, tastier, or more expensive than whatever you received.
3. Don’t forget.

Good luck and Happy White Day

You can read more about it here, here, here or here.


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