It's the start of another English class; I'm pretending to jot something in my notebook when I toss the question out. ‘What day is it, guys?’
My students enjoy the easy back-and-forth, to get their minds and mouths into English mode. For me, it’s nice they play along since I usually don’t know what day it is. As far as I’m concerned, that we’ve shown up on the same day at the same time at all is cause enough to celebrate, by cancelling class and going out for ramen and beer I always say - to no avail as I’ve yet to be blessed with a student who doesn’t see this as a breach of some vague rule system.
This morning too I asked, then found myself squinting at the calendar across the room trying to figure it out before my student did. ‘Oh!’ she says, in an authentic show of surprise; this starts me thinking that maybe she forgot about a hair appointment and is going to cancel class on the spot, or at least step out into the hall for ten minutes to apologize profusely into her cell phone, which will allow me time to hang out and down an extra cup of coffee while I figure out what day it is.
But instead she turned to me, wide-eyed. And then it hit me too. And a wave of guilt washed through me, knowing what was going through my now equally guilt-ridden student.
In Japan, where passion ranks on the common social agenda just below understanding football, there is only one possible explanation for why Valentine’s Day is met with such enthusiasm: it is because a thorough set of guidelines has been established so everyone knows exactly how they are supposed to express their unbridled love.
By no means as I about to poo-poo Japan’s idea of Valentine’s Day, when the women (and only the women) traditionally give chocolate to men (all the men, at least those they can expect to come in contact with, like bosses, co-workers and English teachers). I think every country I live in should have such a Man’s Day – called something else of course so the general female population goes along with it. But it makes me scratch my head – and in Japan one does a lot of head-scratching – because I can not find anywhere in the bowels of the Internet an explanation as to how this Valentine’s Day women-give-the-men-chocolate-or-be-shamed-out-of-societal-existence phenomenon has come about. Asking any actual Japanese person only gets me the standard answer for every question that begins with the word ‘why’: ‘Because that is how it has always been.’ It’s maddening, but if that person is simultaneously handing me a box of bon-bons I forgive them.
It is widely accepted that the confectionary company Mozoroff began the whole Valentine’s Day craze in Japan, though at the time (1936) they were targeting foreigners who apparently, mired in a climate of muted self-expression, had themselves become unable to show any outward affection without a little prodding. The wider Japanese population were only able to enjoy the emotional effluvium years later, after rules for doing so had been developed and disseminated and committed to memory (to avoid any spontaneous, unregulated and unsightly leaking of emotion).
On Valentine’s Day in Japan, the mark of true love is known as hon-mei, the highest form of chocolate in the land. The rule states that hon-mei should be handmade; the required effort and labor proves a woman’s true love for a man (who would otherwise never recognize it, making the concept of hon-mei crucial for any woman who wants to have children). Some women attempt to pass off expensive and elaborately-wrapped store-bought chocolate as hon-mei, but this sort of side-door attempt at love has traditionally only been met with suspicion. Recently, however, to the relief of countless women and the delight of many a confectioner, the taboo of such false affection has received official governmental mitigation – proffered case-by-case in correlation to how expensive and elaborately-wrapped the chocolate is. Kind of gives the expression ‘a yen for love’ new meaning.
Beyond the custom of hon-mei, in any Japanese office every woman is expected to give Valentine’s Day chocolate to all male co-workers in a specified desk-radius. Failure to do so results in punishment, the swiftness and severity of which is largely unknown as Japanese women are warned (by powers no one has ever actually seen) not to test the system. In addition, they are advised in a memo circulated on February 4th (or that following Monday if the 4th falls on a weekend) to bring a stash of emergency chocolates for the men who show up to work early on the 14th and reposition their desks to maximize their intake.
Despite the seemingly over-riding adherence to the rules of love and affection, there are those in Japan who are simply hell-bent on bucking the system. Over recent years an officially non-estimated number of men were suspected of giving their favorite females hon-mei chocolates and other tokens of affection on ‘Barentine’s Deh’, and in response to this hushed public revolt the Japanese Diet handed down the state-sponsored concept of gyaku-choco, or reverse chocolate. With this the courage of all men was unleashed and they openly stormed the supermarkets and confection shops with their newfound governmental permission. In contrast, some young girls had already rebelled, swapping sweets and treats with their female schoolmates; recognizing the unstoppable nature of this wave of unrest the Diet quickly instituted the term tomo-choco, or ‘friend chocolate’, and order returned to Japan’s emotional landscape.
Most recently, consequent to the Kyoto Agreement, the Japanese government encouraged the practice of giving boxes of eco-choco, which came with an average of 2.4 kilos less packaging, ribbons and stickers with misspelled English terms of endearment. This of course sent the packaging, ribbon and sticker industries into a tizzy of ‘Change?’ while upending the ability of the general populace to determine the proper level of suspicion for store-bought hon-mei. Thus eco-choco was slow to catch on.
For years Japanese men reveled in their lack of mandated responsibility to return the affection and expense that women, through negative reinforcement, were highly encouraged to extend. Then in 1977 the National Confectionery Industry Association decided that men should pay back the women for all their pure, heartfelt generosity and instituted ‘White Day’, which takes place on the hard-to-forget date of March 14th (a particular bonus for me as this also happens to be my wife’s birthday). Thus since 1978 men in Japan have dutifully fulfilled their heart-shaped responsibilities by reciprocating on every hon-mei, giri-choco and cho-giri-choco. (In a strange twist, eco-choco was not repaid on grounds it would double the packaging, ribbon and sticker waste; women thus quickly abandoned the idea, putting the final nail in the eco-choco coffin.)
To make sure the men were not just responding robotically to the profound emotional foundation of Barentine’s Deh, the Industry created the term ‘sanbai-gaeshi’, or ‘three times the return’. With this the men are obliged to spend three times what the women spent, in a show of raw and honest gratitude confirmed by an elaborate system of bar code technology and comparison guidelines.
In the spirit of patriotic animosity South Koreans have not only adopted Valentine’s Day and White Day and proceeded to spend, by official accounts, ‘a rot more’ than their Japanese counterparts, they’ve gone further and set aside April 14th as ‘Black Day’. This is when everyone who got the shaft (or didn’t, as it were) on Valentine’s Day and White Day goes down to their local Chinese restaurant for a dinner of black noodles. The Korean Confectionery Group is looking for ways to introduce the concept of cho-giri-choco to the common workforce but the Black Noodle Underground has so far been able to stymie their efforts.
English teachers have it good; as long as we have female students we are guaranteed at least a bit of giri-choco. Plus as foreigners we are automatically assumed to be completely ignorant of and unable to follow the complexities of the Japanese culture and are let off the White Day hook before ever being on it. We are held in such high esteem, in fact (and for no ascertainable reason to anyone with a western mindset), that for some women – usually the slightly older and more traditionally attuned – neglecting to give their male teacher at least a Snickers is unforgivable. This is why I felt so guilty this morning when I asked Reiko what day it was.
But to wind up the matter at hand, please don’t be misled by Japan’s seeming inability to let their emotions flow rampant. After all the rules and regulations regarding the various levels of choco have been adhered to and one’s affections have been properly displayed and officially received, Japanese people, like all wind-swept lovers, do take to the bedroom.
According to reports submitted by the Japan Love Hotel Conglomerate, this fiery release of passion takes place every year on society’s self-administered day of consummation: Christmas Eve.
Note: Personally I do not subscribe to the one-way protocol of Valentine’s Day in Japan. That is why, as I sit on the couch waiting for my wife to finish changing my screaming kid’s stinking diaper, I am going to save the last two chocolate-covered strawberries she made for me so she can try them. Then we are going to cuddle up and watch the movie I rented: Fight Club.