Michael Facius

I don’t mean to spoil the party, but there seems to be little room for doubt that Valentine’s Day is a product of cunning marketing by the flower and confectionery industries. Or, to put it more nicely, of companies reacting to the needs of people in love to express their romantic feelings in material ways. In Japan, companies are particularly ‘caring’. Tapping into a deeply-rooted culture of gift-giving and symbolically acknowledging past and ongoing obligations, the ingenious National Candy and Confectionery Industries Association (全国飴菓子工業同組合) sensed that couples had romantic urges too big to be satisfied by just one holiday. And so they began promoting a second festivity around 1980 – the White Day, to be observed one month after Valentine’s Day, on March 14. Thanks to the split to two different days, a clear-cut division of gift-giving emerged: On Valentine’s Day, women give presents to men, while on White Day, men return the favor.

Japanese ad promoting a White Day lingerie sale (Source: Bella Blog)
Japanese ad promoting a White Day lingerie sale (Source: Bella Blog)

In the early 1990s, the Association of (women’s) Underwear Makers followed suit and thought up a third romantic event: the “Men’s Valentine’s Day”, an opportunity “for men to proactively profess their feelings” (instead of just reacting and returning), as the newspaper Mainichi Shinbun explained (1991/08/10, p. 10). In spite of a broad marketing campaign, Men’s Valentine’s Day didn’t stick – apparently, not all good things come in threes. White Day, on the other hand, has remained a success and is firmly established in Japanese popular culture. It is taken up in animes, discussed in variety shows and subject of advice columns. It has even spread to Taiwan and South Korea. Recently, gay people have jumped onto the bandwagon with tongue-in-cheek-y Valentine’s Gay/White Gay events whose ads give a new twist to traditional expressions of gratefulness customary on such occasions (“thanks for past d*ck”).

While many Japanese cherish White Day as a lighthearted romantic ritual (and others ignore it altogether), splitting Valentine’s Day in two brings into relief the gendered nature of the holiday. While women are encouraged to give self-made chocolate, men are told to “give back three-times” the estimated original value (sanbai gaeshi). More to the point for a blog on sexuality, and, I assume, to the great pleasure of the Underwear Makers’ Association, lingerie has become a common present for White Day. (For some reason, fashion jockstraps don’t seem to be too popular as Valentine’s gifts). What this suggests is these holidays’ ongoing reflection and perpetuation of gendered stereotypes: women are romantic while men are sexual.

The existence of niche pornography for straight men advertising “White Day Sex” amply attests to the power of this characterisation. Japanese women seem to be aware of some mens’ lingering expectations, and sadly, even this awareness can be exploited. An advice column in an online women’s magazine, written by a man, asks: “Why don’t they remember? The reason men forget treasured anniversaries”. The answer includes advice for women not to “harbor sweet expectations, because only men who want to fuck you care about White Day.” Apologetically, and tellingly, the writer adds that there’s nothing to be done about it, because that is just hardwired into men’s genes.

On the other hand, and of course just as unrepresentative, it’s not just men who might become sexually assertive on White Day. In a funny episode from a “Love and Sex Blog”, the author, a woman in her thirties, asks her male lover to buy her a vibrator as a White Day return present. He is reluctant – until she reassures him that buying one in “your size is fine”. After all, White Day might not just offer a space to perpetuate gender and sexual stereotypes, but also to playfully engage them.

A happy White Day to all readers of the Notches blog!

Michael FaciusMichael Facius is a Research Fellow at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute of History, Freie Universität Berlin. His research focuses on Japan and East Asia in global history. In his current project, which is part of a Collaborative Research Center initiative on the pre-modern history of knowledge, he explores evolving views of the early modern period in twentieth-century Japan.

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  1. thehomevegan

    In Korea, they also have Black Day, where single female friends get together and eat a black bean noodle dish in mourning of their singledom. Also, as indicative of how powerful and culturally entrenched the symbolism of these days can be… A friend gave her mom yellow roses, instead of the established pink carnations, on Parents Day (I think there’s a mid-month “special” day each month in Korea) because they are her favourite flower. Her mom broke down in tears, not over the extra thought, but out of shame and hurt at not having received the true Parents Day gift. The power of this scares me.

  2. I wasn’t aware of there being a “Black Day” in Korea – thanks for sharing these episodes and pointing out the sometimes undue impact we allow such rituals to have on us…

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