Valentine’s Day – Japan vs the UK
My partner and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. Starting with a sentence like that is risky because it can easily give off the wrong impression so I just want to make one thing very clear, I am in no way against Valentine’s Day, nor am I anti the concept of a day devoted to romance of the highest order, instead, our boycott of the day is more circumstantial than anything else and boils down to a slight distaste for over the top consumerism. With this in mind we made the decision that we would, rather cheesily, tell each other that we love each other every day of every week of every month, so that we can never forget and treat each other spontaneously at times of the year when we may desperately need the break.
In the last six years we have only ever celebrated the ‘most romantic day of the year’ once; this was during our first year together. I had let myself into Jack’s house to wait for him to finish his night shift only to hear our song drifting under the door of his bedroom. When I walked in, the lights were dimmed, candles were burning and a single red rose sat on his dresser with a note telling me that he would miss me while he worked. This simple gesture was so beautiful and unexpected and I felt like a parody of myself as I sat there crying happy tears all on my own. When he returned home from work and climbed into bed in the morning we spoke about Valentine’s Day very candidly and Jack explained that his gesture wasn’t for Valentine’s Day at all, but as a celebration of the fact that he we had officially been a couple for two months on that very day. I explained that I hadn’t been expecting anything and he told me that he would do nice things like this for me whenever he felt like it. An agreement was born of our honesty and now, if I wake up in the morning and decide I want to cook him a romantic meal, I will do so just because I feel like it not because of any obligation or societal pressure.
Despite all of this though, I have always been a sucker for romance, and on that one day of the year where you see flowers and chocolates around every corner, I can usually be found gushing excitably and grinning like a Cheshire cat at the rose-tinted world that we live in. Since my reconciliation with my love of anime and manga, there is one thing about Valentine’s Day that I am really taken with and that is the Japanese approach to the holiday. So unique and different from the western holiday that I am used to, I could genuinely see myself celebrating the Japanese way if I could convince everyone around me to do the same.
Valentine’s in the UK starts before Christmas has even left the shelves. The world is flooded with fluffy teddy bears, heart shaped boxes of chocolates and cards coated in glitter. Suddenly cutesy designs are everywhere and the manliest men can be found pouring, unashamedly over sickeningly sweet poetry trying to choose the best arrangement of the same words to convey their feelings of adoration to their beau. Everything becomes a whirlwind of pink and red and getting a reservation for dinner (or actually finding a bottle of wine in the supermarket) becomes nearly impossible. The Valentine’s rush might not be as prominent as the Christmas one, but it is close enough to be called a national emergency! Seeing so many people so in love is wonderful and ‘people-watching’ is never so fascinating as it is around this time of the year, however I feel like it has all become a little clinical.
Though each card has a different price tag and a slightly different image of a bear holding roses, the wording is almost identical and the sentiment impersonal. Though there are couples who produce hand-make gifts or put effort into choosing something unique, it is so easy to go to the shop and pick up something that looks like it is heartfelt that I feel like the magic of this most romantic holiday is lost in translation. When I think about the convenience of it all I start to feel a little sad, like part of the world is missing the point of an event designed to highlight your love of the people in your life.
In Japanese culture, Valentine’s Day is not just a celebration of your lover, but a chance to show appreciation for all of the people in your life. A Valentine’s Day in Japan is unique and interesting with a great underlying message which makes the (admittedly still prominent) consumerism much more bearable. In Japan it is traditionally women who give out gifts (usually chocolate) on Valentine’s but these offerings are not just for a lover or romantic interest but to all of the men and important people in their lives.
There are two types of gifts which are given on Valentine’s Day, the first is known as ‘Giri-choco’ also known as ‘Obligation Chocolate’. This is most likely a store bought chocolate which is given to family, colleagues, bosses and male friends, people that the gifter has no romantic interest in but would like to convey their gratitude and appreciation to.
The concept of ‘Giri’ is really interesting in my opinion, I see it as a very structured form of gratitude which seems to literally boil down to an obligation or a debt of gratitude to people who have affected your life or shown you kindness. Many of the articles I have read on Giri stress that it is not something which can be easily translated into English because it is not a simple concept but it is often described as a ‘respect for human relationships’ and a ‘self-sacrificing pursuit of another person’s happiness’. This altruistic concept might seem a little alien to western cultures because it can often seem contradictory and counter-productive, especially when the concept is applied to a business relationship or a rivalry, however there is no denying that this approach promotes an appreciation for the people around you and a selflessness which could never be a flaw.
Alongside ‘Giri-choco’ and probably a slightly easier concept to grasp are the ‘Honmei-Choco’ given by women to their lover or romantic interest. Honmei-Choco is given with true love in mind and as such is often homemade and beautifully wrapped with love in every bite (there is a superstition that it is not true love if you don’t prepare the chocolates yourself) This is where a women gets to reveal her true feelings in as public a forum as she feels like it using a universally accepted method which sounds like it would be a lot less embarrassing than calling him out after school to confess behind the bike shed! Not only is Honmei-Choco often homemade but it is usually bigger, more expensive and fancier than Giri-Choco.
In theory the difference between Honmei and Giri should be reasonably obvious because of the delivery of the gift and the level of care that has gone into the choosing, however there will always be occasions when something is taken the wrong way and the tradition of Giri-Choco could easily lead to some embarrassing misunderstandings that could be difficult to recover from.
Despite my preference for the concept behind a Valentine’s gift in Japan compared with a western Valentine, there is still a niggling voice in the back of my head that thinks this is starting to sound like it could easily be a very expensive holiday for a women with a sprawling family and a lot of friends and colleagues plus why is it only the women who have to gift? Well this is where things get even more interesting; exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, on 14th March, there is another holiday called White Day. On White Day men reciprocate the affection of Valentine’s Day back at the women in their lives with gifts of their own; the gifts can come in a variety of different forms but are often White Chocolate to signify the day and have been known to be more expensive than their Valentine’s counterparts. This is another form of obligation which is crucial to maintain social expectations, so the men don’t escape, not by a long-shot.
Valentine’s Day plays such a big part in the culture of Japan that it is only natural that the Valentine’s scene has become one of the staples of every romance manga, anime or visual novel game and I have come to really look forward to these scenes more and more. Valentine’s Day maybe over but I am now in the mood to prepare some chocolates or make a chocolate cake, I know how I’ll be spending my weekend!
Here is my special Valentine to anyone who has stopped by to read my blog. I love you all 😀