White Day: Japan’s Other Valentine’s

Everyone is familiar with the romantic overtones of February 14, the Feast of Saint Valentine. In most parts of the world, lovers exchange gifts, chocolate, flowers, and enjoy elaborate dates. Japan, however, splits the tradition into two parts thanks to one of the most effective marketing gimmicks ever conceived.

Okay, maybe gimmick is a strong word, but this is how I’ve always perceived it. As the story goes, Morozoff, a confectionary company based in Kobe and founded by a Russian immigrant, introduced Valentine’s Day to Japan in 1936. Later, in 1953, they really began promoting it; and this led to others doing the same. At some point, a translation error in the promotions led to the idea that only women should give chocolates to men, and not the other way around. So, for years Valentine’s Day was a one-sided affair.

Actually, this one-way street still exists today. But it’s not quite as it seems. Instead of being left out in the cold, ladies receive gifts in return one month later.

In the 1980s the Japanese National Confectionery Industry Association succeeded in making March 14 a “reply day” to Valentine’s. It’s on this day that men give chocolates (and nowadays other gifts) to women. The chocolates that were originally promoted were white, thus the name “White Day.” While you will still see some special gift boxes filled with white chocolates, today all varieties are common.

Thanks to this gift-giving division—established by the candy industry and accepted by our culture as tradition—Japanese companies get two opportunities to market for essentially one holiday. I’m not certain if this benefits them or actually costs them more. In the end, the same men and women buy the same gifts either way. Still, the idea that an industry could so successfully establish a tradition such as this is both brilliant and troubling. (And this isn’t the only case in Japan. Let’s not forget KFC, fried chicken, and Christmas. But that’s for another time.)

White Day just feels strange, and I always have a pang of guilt for not having a gift ready on February 14. It took me years to get used to this approach, but eventually I adapted. This year my chocolate selection was the collection from Henri Le Roux that you see above. And while it would have felt more natural for me to have given these a month ago, in the context of relationships White Day has a nice way of extending the spirit of Valentine’s. And in a world where we rarely slow down and have too little time to spend with our loved ones, that’s a good thing.