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Valentine’s Day in Asia: Love and Business

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Sport & Culture

Valentine’s Day in Asia: Love and Business

Asia’s take on Valentine’s Day turns the Western view of the holiday on its head.

Ahhh….Valentine’s Day. Chocolates, red roses, candlelit dinners, whispered sweet nothings. For those who can’t get enough of this kind of thing, Asia offers myriad variations on the tired clichés of romance.

Adventure weddings in Thailand (saying vows underwater or while dangling off a cliff), mass weddings where thousands of couples tie the knot each year in the Philippines, China’s Mistress Day on February 13 (the 14th is reserved for wives) – in terms of novelty, these Asian variations of the holiday don’t disappoint. In Pakistan, some Muslim students have even taken to the streets to flat-out reject what they perceive as an “un-Islamic” holiday, celebrating Hijab Day instead.

Perhaps the most innovative spins on the day of love are found in Japan and Korea, where Valentine’s Day is offered not once yearly, but twice. On February 14, the date traditionally designated for Valentine’s Day, conventional wisdom is flipped as Japanese and Korean men relax and wait for the ladies to lavish them with chocolates.

However, men don’t get off the hook so easily. There’s White Day, an ingenious marketing ploy to get extra mileage out of a holiday when men traditionally do the wooing. On March 14, men must return the affection with chocolates (or lingerie).

These return-chocolates are expected to cost two to three times more than the gifts the men got in the month prior, making confectionary companies in Japan’s U.S. $11 billion chocolate business very happy indeed.

Korea goes a step further, with April 14 becoming Black Day. As the name suggests, this comparatively grim occasion is dedicated to the single and lonely, who commiserate over bowls of jajangmyeon (Chinese-style noodles with appropriately black bean sauce). The sauce often stains the teeth black, further driving the point home for lonesome diners.

Taking love to the max, South Korean lovers have yet another excuse to shower their darlings with gifts on November 11, known as Pepero Day. These are all part of the country’s whopping list of 13 love-infused days, from Kiss Day (June 14) and Hug Day (December 14) to Wine Day (October 14).

These Valentine’s spinoffs, laced with obligation and unique to Japan and Korea, present an etiquette minefield and raise an interesting question: Who benefits more from these customs, men or women?

While Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, who penned The Anatomy of Dependence, and Canadian anthropologist Millie Creighton have offered interesting thoughts on the deeper implications of Japan’s complex gift-giving protocols, the answer is not clear-cut.

On one hand, men get to kick back on Valentine’s Day and await “honmei-choco” (“true feeling chocolate”) from women who also give “tomo-choco” (“friends chocolate”) to their girlfriends. That means women buy for more than just a sweetheart. On the other hand, when White Day rolls around, men spend more—or at least that’s how it is supposed to go.

On the surface, then, it would seem roughly a tie. But dig a bit deeper and it’s the women who seem to get the raw deal, at least in Japan. That’s because of “giri-choco” (“obligatory chocolate”). Alongside chocolate for their husbands and boyfriends, as well as girlfriends, female office workers obligingly give a gift to male coworkers: giri-choco. The salaryman recipients, however, are not required to return the gesture.

These rules, however, are not set in stone.

“Usually when I gave giri-choco to men in the past they gave me candy in return on White Day,” said one female Tokyo office worker, countering the idea that White Day is exclusively reserved for girlfriends and wives.

Her coworker adds, “When I was a student I gave chocolate to boys in my class, but now I don’t follow that custom. Today fewer women want to spend money on chocolate for men they don’t have feelings for. They would rather buy chocolates for their friends.”

According to a survey of 421 female respondents done by the Printemps Ginza department store in Tokyo, as reported by Kyodo News, women are budgeting 3,947 yen on average for honmei-choco this year, up from 3,081 yen in 2012, and will buy an average of 10.4 boxes of giri-choco, up from last year’s 7.6 boxes.

Not only is this a big hit to the pocketbooks of Japanese women, but for those under Cupid’s spell it’s hard to get any less romantic.