So maybe you got some chocolates on Valentine’s Day from the ladies in the office… pretty sweet deal, right? Yes, but did you know you are expected to return that favor exactly one month later?
When you think of a holiday that best describes February, I imagine you immediately think of Valentine’s Day: a romantic holiday when love is in the air, and both men and women exchange cards and chocolates to express their feelings for one another.
When I was in elementary school, my parents would give me 30 cards on Valentine’s Day to pass out to each of my classmates, all of which would have a small piece of candy attached. It was a way of being inclusive and sharing with everyone. A very novel and great idea, I’m sure. But in high school, the expectation was that it would be impractical and meaningless to give chocolate and cards to everyone. Both are two different takes on the same holiday—so which way is it celebrated in Japan?
It’s no secret that holidays celebrated in Japan can vary from their western counterparts (exhibit A: KFC on Christmas Day). After living in Japan for four years, it has become clear to me that Valentine’s Day and its sister holiday “White Day” are no exception to that trend.
In Japan, men are not supposed to send ANY type of Valentine’s greeting to any female coworkers. Instead, women give chocolates to men, notifying them that they value their friendship—or in some cases, are interested in them. It is then and ONLY then that men may return the sentiment. But it’s not done on the same day, no no. You do it on a different day, one month later. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a holiday known as White Day.
White Day is the “answer” to Valentine’s Day, and is celebrated in Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. On this day, men are supposed to return chocolates to the woman from whom they received chocolates. To any ALTs who are new to Japan and this part of its culture, let me try to help you by outlining the procedure in which White Day ought to be observed.
1. Make a list of people who gave you gift(s) on Valentine’s Day.
Do you remember who gave you gifts? I hope so. If not, go back and double-check who gave you what kind of chocolate. Try to discern if the chocolate is “honmei-choco” (chocolate of love) or “giri-choco” (courtesy chocolate). If it was a coworker and it was regular chocolate (i.e. not the really expensive chocolate), then great. Really consider who it was that gave you a gift, and what their relationship to you is. At my school, I received chocolate that can be considered “honmei-choco”, but since I received it from two teachers who I am really close to, it’s more a symbol of our friendship.
2. Return the appropriate gift.
Let’s face it, most of the chocolates you probably received on Valentine’s Day were most likely from your staff members. If so, your “answer” gift should be a chocolate similar to what they gave you. Do not, I repeat do NOT forget to give any gift back. In my opinion, it is a faux pas to not give something back. This means if 15 elderly office ladies gave you chocolate, you had better return those chocolates.
Do not fret. Here are the three categories of chocolate, and when you should give each:
- White chocolate. This chocolate states, “Thank you for the chocolates!” and “Let’s be friends!” No harm, no foul. It’s a way of being polite without having to overdo it.
- Regular chocolate. In my experience, if you buy the more expensive chocolates—usually not the white chocolate because the regular chocolate is out of season (so to speak)—that means your recipient is a little more than “just a friend”. Think of it as a firm, “I like you!” I recommend not buying this.
- Home-made chocolate. Now, this is a straight-up declaration that something is going on between you two. I would expect that if you intend to give this as your “answer” gift, it means two things: first, this person is not one of your coworkers (because inter-office relationships are rare in Japan), and second, you intend to start something. Putting in the time to make something from scratch (e.g. homemade chocolate chip cookies) really says, “I have feelings for you!” Don’t go down this route unless you intend to give everyone this gift. If it’s your staff room, the teachers will talk and everyone will find out who received “giri-choco” and who received the chocolates made from scratch by ALT-sensei.
3. Continue the appropriate relationship.
Assuming your decision for an answer chocolate followed one of the classifications of chocolate above, you should continue that relationship. By returning the white “giri-choco” to everyone, you’ve successfully continued your harmonious relationship with your female co-workers and female friends, and maybe improved it even more because you understood the implications of the holiday. If you’ve returned the regular chocolate, look forward to more help from that individual. You’ve very quietly stated that you value that person in your life and therefore you shouldn’t be surprised if that person comes to your help in the future. If you’ve gone down the homemade route and given gifts to one (or if you’re trying to secretly play the field, a couple) of your female friends, good luck on the journey you’ve begun! You didn’t know it before you received that very overly priced chocolate, but now you know and so does your companion(s). You are both interested in each other. So go on and go forth, develop your relationship!
If you didn’t receive any chocolate this past Valentine’s Day, don’t worry. There’s always next year. And if you don’t want to abide by Japan’s cultural norms, you can always jump the shark and give out chocolates on Valentine’s Day next year!