Valentines in Japan: An obligation to love and work

Up until last year I had never been in a relationship during Valentines Day. Not that I really cared. In fact like with everything these days, it’s just another example of mass commercialisation in our consumerist society. Now that I’m in a relationship, I still harbour the cynicism towards it. But I put in some effort to make it a special occasion. Last year my girlfriend and I took a weekend trip to Osaka, but unfortunately this year it’s on a Tuesday. So I’ll probably end up getting her some flowers and taking her to dinner.

However living Japan has presented a different cultural perspective on Valentines Day as a whole. As those that have read about Japanese customs and culture will already understand, Japan has two days related to the “festival of love”. February 14th is Valentines Day but the following month has “White Day”. In the land of the rising sun, the country’s notion of Valentines Day is traditionally seen as a time when girls and women give gifts to their male partners. Meanwhile the puzzlingly named “White Day”  is when the men return the favour by giving gifts back; white chocolates, white flowers and white teddy bears. 

Japan goes full out in preparation for the both days as per usual. Shops are decorated with hearts and the colours of pink and red, pre-wrapped chocolates are readily available, and girls contemplate over displayed baking ingredients and recipes. Bringing those who watch Japanese high school dramas and anime back down to reality, Valentines Day is not quite the whimsical day thats presented on screen. It’s not all about confessions between sweethearts usually ending in cringeworthy misunderstandings and copious broken friendships. It’s actually not uncommon for schools to prohibit students from bringing chocolates, which is the case in my local school district.

Yet unbeknownst to me, Valentines Day in Japan isn’t solely limited to the expression of love, but has become somewhat of a social obligation with the use of the term 義理チョコ (giri-choco) translating into “obligation chocolates”. Yes, apparently it has become customary for women in companies and offices to give gifts to their bosses and male co-workers. Of course Japanese people have simply become accustomed to this concept and understand it as the social norm. But for myself and my girlfriend, who hates this custom with a passion, it’s the fact that its seen as necessary which is slightly concerning. As in; no chocolates, could mean no promotion in the near future.

Perhaps I’m reading into it too much but for as much as you can dress it all up, young ladies buying wrapped boxes of chocolates for their middle-aged bosses on a day commonly associated with love and romance, isn’t something that makes me particularly comfortable. Especially if you understand the backdoor negligence and unfortunate social ignorance surrounding attitudes to women in the Japanese workplace. According to The Guardian newspaper, “Nearly a third of Japan’s women are sexually harassed at work”, which is shocking for a country commonly seen as respectful and with high principles. In reality Japan still clings onto its conservative, patriarchal society, and it’s inherently sexist culture and thinking. In fact, what’s shocking is that many still don’t understand the term “sexual harassment”. While the country is gradually accepting and changing it’s attitude towards women in the workplace, its still lagging behind its counterparts. But that’s a story for another day.

For now, I’ll just look forward to the chocolates.

Author: lostcynicinjapan

A twenty-five year old, British male living in Hiroshima, Japan. I'm an ALT who works in a number of junior high schools. I like to criticise about random things and I like to take photographs.

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