February 14th marks Valentine’s Day, an informal holiday where beaux and sweethearts share gifts with each other symbolizing their endearment for one another. (Okay, typically it involves one person buying flowers for another, and maybe dinner.) Historically, Valentine’s Day stems from the Feast of St. Valentine; Western Christian churches observe the feast on that date, although Eastern ones make it on July 6th. The saint, who died in around the year 269, had little to do with romance, and the holiday has roots in the 15th century.
Over the centuries, Valentine’s Day has become a mostly secular event, and has spread throughout the world. But in some places, the holiday is dramatically different — at times, by force — than what many of us expect.
Take, for example, Japan. Each year, on Valentine’s Day, girls and women give gifts of chocolate to boys and men, and not necessarily to those they are romantically linked to. The chocolate even comes with implicit messages. High quality chocolate, called “honmei choco” (literally “true feeling chocolate”), is given to the woman’s romantic interest; on the other hand, women give others something called “giro choco” — “obligation chocolate” — to friends and co-workers. Men, who are often the more heavily obligated gender in the U.S. when it comes to Valentine’s Day, do nothing but accept (and eat) the gifts, and perhaps deal with the unsubtle message associated with the quality of chocolate received.
But the women win out in the end. In 1978, Japan’s National Confectionery Industry Association came up with a marketing scheme called “White Day,” to be celebrated on March 14th, a month after Valentine’s Day. On White Day, men are expected to return the favor and then some — “sanbai gaeshi,” literally, “triple the return” is the rule of thumb — as they deliver chocolates, cookies, marshmallows, and even jewelry or lingerie to the women who showered them with chocolates a month prior. (The confectionery industry, unsurprisingly, began heavily marketing white chocolate in the late winter and early spring of 1978.) The good news for men? The White Day custom does not imply that a return-gift comes with specific romantic overtures, but simply a repayment of obligation — except, one assumes, in the case of things like lingerie.
From the Archives: Cupid’s Mailbox: How to get your Valentines postmarked with a Valentine postmark.
Related: Really cheap chocolate, in case you need to send obligation chocolate to anyone.