How many people did you give chocolate to on Valentine’s Day? In Japan, you might have had to count on your hands and toes to answer that question, at least if you’re a woman. The Japanese custom for Valentine’s Day is for women to give chocolate to their significant others and also their wider circle of acquaintances. Distinctions are drawn between honmei-choko (‘favourite chocolate’), given to loved ones, and giri-choko (‘obligatory chocolate’) for co-workers, and sometimes tomo-choko (‘friend chocolate’) which is sometimes exchanged between female friends.
Exactly a month later, on the 14th of March, it is the gentlemens’ turn to return the favour, on what is known as ‘White Day’. The Valentine’s chocolate is often reciprocated with more expensive gifts, such as jewellery and clothing. A popular rule is that the gift should be two or three times the worth of the Valentines gift. The practice of White Day has also spread to other East Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and China.
Neither Valentine’s Day or White Day is a day to go on dates, however – that’s what Christmas Eve is for. This aligns with the Western idea of Valentines Day, when couples scramble to book tables at restaurants and those without a date, through gritted teeth, opt for a night in. While Santa Claus is a popular figure with children, Christmas in the East is perhaps not as much of a family affair as in the West. Instead, that position tends to be occupied by New Year. And the traditional Japanese Christmas dinner? Why, KFC of course! In Japan, Christmas is the busiest time of the year for suppliers of fried chicken. For dessert, strawberry sponge cake is the staple.
Of course, none of these holidays have existed in Japan for a very long time. With less than 1% of the population being Christian, why would Japan bother with adhering to the typical Western menu of ways to celebrate? These holidays have been imported from the West and driven by commercial interests. They are what we might call Hallmark holidays, whose customs are created and encouraged by advertising campaigns. Japanese confectionery companies wanted to sell more chocolate, and Valentine’s Day seemed as good a reason as any to do it. Still, this does not necessarily mean that these holidays are entirely devoid of heart. Besides, Japan certainly does not lack in native holidays with deeper cultural roots, so what’s the harm in bringing in a few Western traditions to play around with as well?
After all, many of us in the West celebrate Christmas and other holidays without any deeper understanding of their origins. Commercialism is certainly nothing unique to any one holiday or any one part of the world. It’s not hard to see how holidays present an irresistible opportunity for companies to boost sales. If there aren’t enough, create more or import them! As a result of this, it’s sometimes hard to draw the line between genuine cultural exchanges and crass business interests. But the fact remains: commercialism plays a bigger role than we ought to be comfortable with.
Rather than the particularities of how countries choose to celebrate imported holidays, the exploitative aspects of this global phenomenon is what we should scrutinize. Imported holidays are almost always adopted from the West, often America. The export of cultural traditions in the interests of making a profit brings the ugly ideas of imperialism to mind. Halloween and Valentine’s Days are the prime examples of this process. You’ll be able to find pumpkin decorations lurking in all parts the world around October and everything everywhere will be heart-shaped come February, regardless of whether or not those joining in the festivities have any idea what they’re celebrating.
At the same time, you will also be hard pressed to find a place where the locals have not put their own spin on an imported holiday. It is inevitable that they will become patched together in ways that would then seem wholly unfamiliar in its place of origin. That the reason behind this is advertising agencies rather than the local population is certainly something to cry foul at. However, it’s also important to remember that holidays can undergo sporadic changes at any given moment in any old part of the world. After all, many of the traditions we think of as ancient and holy are actually much newer than we would have thought. For all we know, KFC for Christmas may one day become the norm over here too.