Friday, February 09, 2007
Valentine's Day, Japan-style
The gift and card pictured above were a Valentine's treat given to my husband by one of his more generous female students. Inside, there's a gold box of chocolate truffles made in France. If you know anything about the way things work during the Valentine's holiday in Japan, you know this isn't an indication of any amorous intent on the student's part.
For those who don't know, the confectioners in Japan performed a profitable King Solomon act on the holiday and split it into a holiday in which men receive chocolates as gifts (Valentine's Day) and one in which women receive cookies or marshmallow-based treats or other white sweets (White Day). What's more, the chocolate gifts that men receive are usually based on mundane friendships or business relationships rather than romance. Female workers give chocolate to their male colleagues in many cases.
The chocolate women tend to give isn't elaborate for the most part. You find that women in offices tend to buy pre-wrapped tidbits of relatively pedestrian chocolates from convenience stores or supermarkets. Strawberry or cherry Kit-Kats are a particular favorite. This year there is a special Valentine's box of brandy and orange Kit-Kats for sale. In fact, I've never seen the heart-shaped boxes of candy that are frequently sold in the U.S. at this time of year. The truffles my husband received are definitely several cuts above the usual fare.
Most of the Japanese women I've spoken to about this are not fond of the way this works. I've been told that White Day is frequently forgotten and their Valentine gifts of chocolate are not reciprocated.
My husband also read a book quite some time ago (I wish I could remember the title) about the politics and psychology of Japanese office ladies (frequently called "O.L.s") and it mentioned that a lot of women use this holiday as a means of expressing some hostility toward their bosses. Besides spitting in the tea they served, they'd also carefully break apart all the chocolate inside it's wrapper before giving it over to their boss or coworker.
Surprisingly, the conservative, old-fashioned former president of my former company (he reigned for 10 years of my 12 there) was savvy enough to outlaw the giving of chocolate during Valentine's Day. He didn't want to impose the hardship of buying a bunch of pointless little gifts on what he knew were our greatly underpaid O.L.s.