White Day: Japan’s Problematic Response to Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is divided into two big dates in Japan, and the second one is known as White Day; nonetheless, this tradition has been branded as sexist, and here we explain why.

Isabel Cara

White Day: Japan’s Problematic Response to Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is one of the most anticipated festivities for couples of any age in most Western countries; for some, in Eastern parts of the world, especially those in Japan, it is only the first part of a two-date event celebration.

The “White Day,” popular among consumers and stores in the Land of the Rising Sun, is the name of the counterpart for Valentine’s Day, whose origin is not really very old, although it reached such strong popularity among the Japanese that it has already become a tradition.

What are the common things to do for Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan and other East Asian regions such as China and South Korea? We will explain it in detail below.

Valentine’s Day vs. White Day

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As many of us know, Valentine’s Day, which in Mexico and other parts of Latin America is also called the Day of Love and Friendship, is a date that is almost always celebrated on February 14. It is an “ode” to the love that one person feels for another, based on one of the main patrons of romance in ancient Greece: Eros (Cupid for ancient Romans).

On this day, couples are the ones who usually give each other flowers, chocolates, teddy bears, and other types of gifts and details. Although it is also common for friends and family members to give each other small presents to show mutual affection.

Many streets, schools, and stores are adorned with paper hearts and figures made in pink, red, and even white colors, which allude to love. As we all know, it is very common to see an abundance of couples in big stores, restaurants, or movie theaters, celebrating and having a good time.

In Japan, the holiday is somewhat different, according to a BBC: women are the ones who give candy and chocolates to their loved ones, especially men, during the day, without receiving anything in return or waiting to get a present, since that’s what White Day is for.

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This kind of “counter festivity,” which takes place every March 14th, practically a month after Valentine’s Day, is the moment in which the men who received chocolates and candy must “respond to the favor” with a presentation of the same kind towards the women who elected them.

Men’s gifts are usually in white colors, such as a marshmallow, a cupcake, sweets, or even paper presents made in this tone, although some dare to give more expensive and luxurious things, such as pieces of jewelry encrusted with pearls, zirconia, and even diamonds.

For many people, this act is a clear example of the sexism that persists in today’s society, and that is why a lot of people in Asia have already stopped continuing this “tradition;” to go against the precarious thoughts of their culture that are strongly linked to patriarchal and heteronormative societies.

Where Did ‘White Day’ Come From?

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Being a relatively recent event, a candy-making company in Fukuoka Prefecture, Ishimura Manseido, continues taking credit for inventing this holiday, encouraging men to thank women for gifts received on Valentine’s Day with chocolate-filled marshmallows.

However, this act of exchange, which was intended for couples, gradually began to spread to other social circles, whether in the family, among friends, co-workers, or even bosses.

“As White Day approaches, each retail outlet will try to force-sell their merchandise as ‘okaeshi,’ which is deeply rooted in the culture,” says Sawako Hidaka, executive director at the global not-for-profit Asia Society’s Tokyo-based Japan Center.

And it is precisely that both this company, which claims to be the inventor of the tradition, and those others that have continued its legacy, have strongly clung to the “okaeshi” culture in Japan, which refers to giving presents as a way to say “thank you” for receiving and equal gift, aiming the increase of their sales each year after having left behind the popular economic event known as “January slope.”

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“Japanese gift-giving is a time-honored tradition or long-standing cultural practice in that if you receive a gift, you are obliged to reciprocate. It’s not based on romance per se,” adds Setsu Shigematsu, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside.

And, of course, other strongly capitalist countries have sought to bring this “tradition” to their regions: for example, companies in the United States launched their “Sweetest Day,” a kind of not-so-popular Valentine’s Day that takes place in October, although today most people prefer to stick to the traditional February holiday.

What do you think about White Day and the way people celebrate it, as well as Valentine’s Day, in Japan? Do you think this is an event that should be appreciated and applauded, or that it is something that is outdated due to the progress of society towards more equitable traditions?