Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s day is coming. In Japan, depending on your gender, that may or may not be a good thing.

A girlie holiday in a country that cherishes girlie things means… super girliness. I’ve only seen this commercial maybe twice, but it’s been stuck in my head ever since. The fact my students sing it all the time doesn’t help. It just may be the catchiest jingle… ever?

I was initially excited about Valentines day for the same reason I always am: candy. Like any smart sweets addict with both a budget and no self-control, the day after Valentine’s when everything goes on sale is one of my favorite days of the year. Japan has some excellent sweets and a penchant for outrageousness, so I was looking forward to see what kind of twist it would bring to this holiday. And soon it came: stores everywhere began to make space for displays of chocolate and baking kits. Considering that during the rest of the year it’s pretty damn impossible to find some muffin mix, I was pleased to see department stores dedicate entire floors to my favorite hobby, the production (and therefore consumption) of sweets and baked goods.

Then I began to realize it’s kind of a feminist’s nightmare.

As you can see in the chocolate ad above, girls give each other lots of candy. In fact, from what I hear, many go to incredible lengths to make lovely handmade chocolates for their friends (known as “honmei choco”). Meiji’s ad accurately reflects one side of Valentine’s day in Japan: girls happily giving gifts to each other, things are cute and fuzzy.

But there are two other, larger categories of Japanese Valentines day gifts. Both involve gift giving for men. Girls give chocolate to their boyfriends, of course, but they are also expected to give chocolate to the male authority figures in their lives. This type of gift is known as “giri-choco,” or “obligation chocolate,” and is usually store bought, because handmade would imply romantic feelings. Some giri-choco is even labeled as such, just to keep things clear.

So women in Japan end up with a super long shopping list for Valentine’s day. They must give chocolate to everyone. Boxes of chocolate aren’t cheap- at least a thousand yen each, which is more than ten bucks- not to mention all of the time spent in the kitchen making honmei choco. And what do the men do? NOTHING!* Japan always takes the ceremony of gift giving very seriously, but most other days of the year it’s a little more gender balanced.

While looking around on youtube for Valentine’s day related commercials and such, I found this little gem…

…which is a kind of kawaii girlie kitsch that I can really endorse. I wish the chocolate records still existed. I’d buy one for everybody I know! And without any sort of debbie downer grudge about gender equality.

I’m not arguing that this girl is empowered, exactly, but I think the way she presents herself is refreshing compared to what Japan’s Valentines day represents in 2011.

Because sadly, today the reality seems to be women in the kitchen, pearls and frills and makeup and all:

and this:

and this:

aaaaand:

I’m not saying that Japanese women are like this. The ones I know aren’t, at least. But likewise, American women aren’t all like Lady Gaga or [fill in the blank with any major pop star or actor]. It’s still interesting to see how a culture forms a relationship with the images in their mass media. And this case happens to be women in aprons and school uniforms pandering chocolate that only other women will buy.

Also, after watching all of these, I really just want so much candy.

*As a response to Valentine’s day, a whole separate holiday called White day was created in March for women to receive gifts. I admit that’s a nice thing, and all, but I’d be really surprised if men have as many social obligations for White day as women do for Valentine’s day. Do they have to buy all of their man buddies and bosses chocolate, or just their girlfriends? I’ll be interested to see.

A note on the picture at the top of this post: It’s an in-store advertisement at Loft, one of the most brilliant department stores I’ve ever set foot in. And, yes of course, they have an incredibly enormous candy section up right now.

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