Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Valentine's Day in Japan

I've always had a love-hate relationship with Valentine's Day.  It has little to do with the romance associated with the day, and more with the fact that my birthday is in August.  Those who also have summer birthdays can perhaps understand my feelings about my birthday.  When you're young, birthdays are your special day.  Summer birthday parties, especially those toward the end of summer, usually have a low record of attendance when you're an elementary school student because your friends are gone for sports tournaments or on vacation.   Birthdays that happen during the school year might include special perks in your elementary school class such as being line leader, getting to choose the story to read during reading time, being able to invite your entire class to your birthday party, or having a few moments of attention while you hand out cupcakes.  People with summer birthdays don't get that.  

However, most teachers during my elementary school days let children with summer birthdays celebrate their half birthday during the school year.  Being that my birthday is August 14th, my half birthday is February 14th - Valentine's Day.  I could never compete with the candy and cards that flowed into the school that day.  To have my real birthday fade into the background of summer vacation and then to also have my half birthday in the shadow of all the Valentine's Day festivities just wasn't fair.  Thus, from a young age, I always felt a bit jipped because of Valentine's Day. 

I'm not sure if the above explanation really has anything to do with Valentine's Day in Japan.  I think I just wanted a reason to finally explain why I never have really appreciated Valentine's Day.  Also, if at any point something I may write or say about Valentine's Day comes across as bitterness...please understand that it stems from unresolved childhood issues. 

Valentine's Day (バレンタインデ-barentain-dei) is a little different in Japan than in the States.  As with any other holiday or ceremony in Japan, there are very standard norms to be followed. The four important things you need to be aware of about Valentine's Day in Japan are:

1.  Women give men presents, only.
2.  The only socially acceptable present is something sweet, specifically chocolate. The chocolate dessert may or may not be homemade. 
3. Sadly, there is no such thing as Valentine's Day cards. 
4. If a boy or man receives chocolate from a girl, he is socially obligated to return the favor by giving her white chocolate on "White Day" March 14th. 

Maybe someone in Japan knows an exception to one of these four statements about Valentine's Day, but I feel confident in declaring the above four points as the rules that most - if not all - Japanese people follow on Valentine's Day.

Since that is the case, I had a very uneventful Valentine's Day last year.  I would have forgotten that it was Valentine's Day if my newsfeed on Facebook hadn't been updated by all the male ALTs in the area bragging about how much chocolate they got from (girl) students. I vowed that this year would be different. 

I began my operations about a month before Valentine's Day.  Any time a teacher asked for an activity from me for class, I suggested Valentine's Day-related ones.  Usually this included a short explanation about the differences in how we celebrate the holiday, a true story about the sweetest thing a boy has ever done for me on Valentine's Day (I was 11 years old at the time and still no one has been able to top it), and then Valentine's Day bingo with some cool heart stickers as prizes. I made sure to emphasize the fact that people give little gifts or cards on Valentine's Day with friends, family, teachers, classmates...regardless if they are a boy or a girl.  

Valentine's Day approaches and the little gifts start to trickle in.  Apparently the recent trend is for the girls to spend most of their free time on the 12th or 13th of February making homemade chocolates rather than buying them from a store.  This makes each one a little more precious because of the effort put behind it.  It also leads to one-upmanship and extremely tired looking girls in class on the 14th.  On the flip side, it's apparently quite devastating for the boy students if one of them receives no chocolate from a girl.  Popularity is measured by the number of candies received and apparently it's taken quite seriously if a boy doesn't receive anything, especially if this happens for more than one year successively. Interesting how popularity contests during high school seem to be native to all cultures around the globe. 

I'll get to the point and tell you how I fared this year. The end result for me was slightly higher than average for a high school ALT as far as I'm aware.  I netted six chocolates, a few homemade caramels, and a heart pillow (possibly inspired by my emphasis on how it's common to give something other than candy to people in the States) - all from girl students. One chocolate came from a coworker at a high school I visit.  He's lived abroad so I'm thinking it was given out of friendship...

Here are pictures of what some of the chocolates looked like.  These were lovingly made at home by a few sweet students...if I could have restrained myself I would've taken a nice group shot of all the candies I received.  However, the little chocolates came to me the entire week of Valentine's Day since I visited multiple schools during that time and they were fabulously delicious so they didn't last long.

I have also set up an experiment for White Day.  Since I gave no chocolates on Valentine's Day last year, I received nothing for White Day (Side note: White Day was started by marshmallow companies hoping to boost sales a few decades ago, and although marshmallows have nothing to do with today's White Day, the name stuck around).  This year my February "Lunch with Ms. Kim" fell on Valentine's Day. Recently the entire boy's volleyball team has been attending the luncheon to have lunch with me and play easy English games. As a prize for bingo, I gave out chocolates to everyone in attendance which included about 15 young boys - and their girl manager. Although it was mostly coincidental, I made sure they were aware it was Valentine's Day.  Next month's "Lunch with Ms. Kim" falls on March 13th so we'll see if the boys feel obligated to return the favor or not.  I'll let you know how it goes. 

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