Sunday, February 13, 2011

Love Rules In Japan

The Choco-Laws of Valentine's Day

It's time once again for English class here at the manufacturing company. My students are sitting quietly, waiting while I scribble out a blog post idea that just came to me. The whole first paragraph is coming together in my head, I need a few more seconds to get it all down.

I toss out the old stand-by: ‘So what day is it, guys?’

I keep scribbling. And scribbling. It's not that hard a question, guys.

My students usually enjoy the easy back-and-forth. It helps them get into English mode. It’s nice for me too 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 is cause enough to celebrate.

"Let's cancel class and go out for ramen and beer!" I always say.

I’ve yet to find a student who doesn’t see this as a breach of some vague rule system.

I'm still scribbling, enjoying the extra writing time though it's getting ridiculous. I look up - and see Michiko staring back at me. Just...staring. The three guys in the class are staring at her, all of them smiling like they just figured out a secret. Something's up. And they know what it is.

And then it hits me too.

Valentine's Day!

Immediately my mouth starts watering.

As February comes to Japan it’s hard to miss the chocolate-covered excitement of Valentine’s Day. In supermarkets and department stores all across the country the racks and aisles explode in red white and pink manifestations of love. On the surface it looks like your typical Valentine’s Day in any number of countries around the world.

But in Japan, where showing affection ranks just below understanding football on the scale of social importance, the enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day seems utterly illogical. I've seen houseflies show more passion than these people. (It's true, I have. It was weird.)

There is an explanation, however. And it's right where you'd expect: in a thorough set of guidelines that tells the entire population how to properly express their roiling emotions.

I love Valentine’s Day in Japan. By rule, only the women are expected to hand out chocolate. The men just hang out and rake it in, not for being the object of anyone’s affection so much as being an object in someone’s proximity. This typically includes those seething creatures of passion known as bosses, co-workers and foreign 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.

A Little Bit of History

It is widely accepted that the confectionary company Mozoroff introduced the concept of Valentine’s Day to Japan in 1936 with an advertising campaign targeting foreigners. Mired in a climate of muted self-expression, these expats had become unable to show any sort of outward affection and were at first confounded by this familiar yet vague sense of loving deja-vu. But the chocolate-covered scheme worked and soon the white men were reunited with their libidos.

The wider Japanese population, on the other hand, had no idea how to handle the strange feeling of having feelings. They would only begin to enjoy the amorous effluvium years later, once the rules for doing so had been developed and disseminated and committed to memory. Few things are more unsettling around these islands than a spontaneous, unregulated and unsightly leaking of emotion.

It is interesting to note that a simple error in the translation of an early Mozoroff advertisement may have led to the unique Japanese custom of the women giving chocolates to the men. Rather than embarrass anyone by trying to correct the error the women – and, it can be assumed, the men – decided to continue the ways of the holiday without causing a fuss.

A Whole Lot of Rules

On Valentine’s Day in Japan the mark of true love is known as hon-mei, the highest form of chocolate in the land. Traditionally hand-made and wrapped with the precision of a neurosurgeon, hon-mei is reserved for the woman's (presumably) one true love, who in turn is expected by state ordinance to recognize all the effort and labor that went into this box of bon-bons and conclude that the woman deserves 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.

Women are further 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. In 1987 a woman in Yokohama tried to complain to her boss about the whole situation before she realized he had moved his desk to the Tokyo head office for the day.

To counterbalance the risk of the women turning this flood of giving into something heartfelt, and to prevent the men from unduly appreciating any gesture of kindness, a term has been created for this Valentine’s Day duty: giri-choco, or ‘obligation chocolate’. Everyone gives, everyone gets. We are all equally loved acknowledged.

The Powers keep people’s feelings in further order with the added protection and comfort of an acceptable price range for this level of intimacy. This index of regulated generosity is invaluable to any woman, for if she goes too high-end with her truffled obligations she risks the embarrassment of appearing to be whoring out multiple hon-mei. On the other hand, if a woman tries to get by on the Valentine’s Day cheap she’ll be accused and scorned for handing out cho-giri-choco, designated in the ‘No Co-Worker Left Behind Act’ of 1991 as the ‘very obligatory chocolate’ reserved specifically for the accounting department and any other geeks normally outside the social desk-radius who, until 1991, got nothing.

Acts of Chocolate Revolution

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’. In response to the hushed anarchy 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 to express themselves.

These men did not comprise the only social uprising going on. Teenage girls had also begun testing the limits of Japan’s tolerance for unchecked displays of intimacy with the unruly practice of 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 once more.

Most recently, consequent to the Kyoto Agreement, the Japanese government encouraged the practice of giving boxes of eco-choco which, compared to hon-mei choco, came with an average of 2.4 kilograms 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.

The Equal Chocolate Rights Amendment

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. This until the National Confectionery Industry Association lobbied to make men pay back with standardized gratitude all the pure, heartfelt generosity shown to them by all the women who had no other choice.

Thus was born the state-sanctioned and socially-compulsory ‘White Day’. Now every year on March 14th (a bonus for me as this is also my wife’s birthday) men dutifully fulfill their heart-shaped responsibilities by reciprocating on every hon-mei, giri-choco and cho-giri-choco they received and logged in a special notebook they were permitted to buy at the drugstore or 7-Eleven of their choice, as long as they could provide a receipt. (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.

Consummating The Choco

Despite the extensive choco-policies there does exist in Japan the natural human ability to let the 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 sugared-up 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: As a Westerner of genuine emotion 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.