Thanks to many of the advertisers that have made great effort to commercialize religious events, we have come to strongly associate Valentine’s Day with gift-giving. In particular, we celebrate the day by sending cards, flowers, and chocolates to our loved ones. Chocolate hence has come to carry a connotation of love and caring, but is this the case in other countries also? How is Valentine’s Day celebrated in other countries and what roles does chocolate play in those cases?
Let us take a look at Japan. Valentine’s Day in Japan “constitutes a culturally hybridized holiday ritual” (Minowa et al. 44). As will be discussed in the remainder of this post, there are several key differences between how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Japan and in the US. This will give us insight into cultural differences between the two countries, and highlight important questions including those of gender roles and inequality. Further, “(i)n the 50 years since its introduction in Japan, it has metamorphosed in its meaning as a reflection of changes in social values, the national economy, and consumer ideology” (Minowa et al. 44, 45). As we will discover, the method in which this day is celebrated has changed quite rapidly, and this is due to the very nature of chocolate; given that it is a gift favored by such a large audience, it is capable of yielding a highly malleable consumer culture, and hence renders an opportune lens into cultural issues. The adaptation is extensive and has even made its way into the Japanese corporate culture. In short, we will use Valentine’s Day and chocolate to dig into the issues of gender roles and inequality in Japan.
1. Valentine chocolates in romantic relationships –As an amplifier of cultural norms–
One key difference between the Western tradition of Valentine’s Day and the Japanese adaptation is that it is “a time for women to give men chocolate” and not vice versa (Rupp 147). Looking at the historical context in which this tradition has developed, in the late 1970s, backed by the United Nations Decade for Women and the Japanese government’s
effort to eliminate gender inequalities, the proportion of females in the labor force started to grow (Minowa et al. 47). However, women were still marginalized, and treated as cheap, disposable workers (Minowa et al. 47). This created a situation in which women were becoming more financially independent to the point where it made sense for marketers to target them, but their financial independence was still weak to the point that their success in life still depended on finding a good husband that could provide them. This aligns with the emergence of lines of advertisement and articles for Valentine’s Day that emphasized “strategy” in their headlines, in which they “started to instruct women ‘how to’ beat rivals and win the man” (Minowa et al. 47). The culture of women gifting men on Valentine’s Day emerged from the social structure in Japan where women had to depend on men to succeed and therefore were motivated to win the right husband.
March 14th is White Day in Japan. This originated in the 1970s in the attempt to compensate for the gender asymmetry in Valentine’s Day (Rupp 149). According to Rupp, “on this day, men are supposed to make return gifts of white chocolate or other white
sweets to the women who gave them dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day” (Rupp 149). Although this may seem to put men and women on equal grounds, we must note that there remains an inherent asymmetry caused by one gender initiating the action and the other responding a month later. In the Western world, there exists the criticism that classical gender roles often expect women to be submissive and the object of action, and the case of Valentine’s Day in Japan may seem to defy this at first glance. However, the Japanese Valentine’s Day still puts women as the object of action once they have expressed their interest in a romantic relationship on February 14th, since men reserve the power to choose whether or not to carry on with the potential relationship.
Men having the power to make the ultimate decision in a romantic relationship may be a phenomena observed elsewhere in the world and outside the context of Valentine’s Day, but chocolate advertisement and their marketing strategies have amplified this effect. Going back to the Western world for a moment, we observe a plethora of chocolate advertisements that assumes gender roles and portrays women as passive, ‘dumb’, or unintelligent sex objects (Gill 52). For instance, the following advertisement by Lindt assumes that it is the men’s role to send gifts to his girlfriend, thereby defining expected gender roles where men are the subject taking action and women are the object of the action. Although the roles are flipped in the Japanese Valentine’s Day culture since women is the subject initiating action, in both cases chocolate plays the role of amplifying these cultural norms.
2. Chocolate in workplaces –as a manifestation of inequality and resistance–
Unlike in the Western world where Valentine’s Day is a tradition exercised solely between very close ones, in Japan the culture has made its way into workplaces. In fact, the gift giving is exercised more actively in a non-romantic context, and in a survey by Morozoff Ltd, 84 percent of women gave chocolate to “people who helped them” and only 28 percent of those same women gave chocolate to lovers or spouses (Rupp 147).
What does Valentine’s in office look like in practice? Ogasawara provides a fascinating account on how “Office Ladies” or “OLs” in Japanese corporations executes this tradition. While such positions may not be as common today with some improvement in gender equality in the labor market, they were predominant around the time the culture of Valentine’s Day began to spread in Japan. OL is a position perhaps unique to Japanese companies, so I will quote the following brief description of what they are:
OLs are recruited immediately from universities and two-year colleges… Major tasks assigned to OLs include operating copiers and facsimile machines, performing elementary accounting, and doing word processing. They are also usually responsible for such chores as serving tea to their male colleagues or company visitors, wiping the surfaces of desks with wet towels, and receiving telephone calls… Perhaps because their work seems wholly superficial and nonproductive, some say that OLs’ major contribution to the office lies in their presence. Indeed, OLs were once frequently called ‘office flowers,’ implying that they served a decorative function and thereby inspired men to work hard. Partly in response to the influence of Western feminist thinking, this expression is no longer popular. However, the role OLs play in the organization has not changed much since the days when they were called ‘office flowers’. (Ogasawara 10)
OLs start preparing for the event around two weeks in advance, getting together and deciding who to give what kind of chocolates. The day before Valentine’s Day, the OLs would busy themselves during lunch time wrapping gifts and writing cards that were to be given to the men. The morning of Valentine’s Day, the office kitchen is full of colorfully wrapped gifts waiting to be presented to men, and throughout the day, there is a flurry of activity in the office, women employees handing these chocolates out to male employees. It causes a huge loss of work time and clogs the internal mail system as many OLs decide to send chocolates to men in branch offices over mail (Ogasawara 98-101).
It is shocking to see how much of a big event Valentine’s Day is in the Japanese workplace, and just how much the OLs invest into this event. I claim that the emergence of such a culture stems from the existence of a role like OL. As Ogasawara’s description reveals, OLs take on monotonous and seemingly unimportant tasks. There must have been many women who were capable of doing much more that serving tea and taking copies, but were only able to land on an OL job given the large gender inequality in the Japanese labor market at the time of advent of the in-office Valentine’s Day tradition. These women drove the creation of this tradition, which continues to be executed today.
While Valentine’s Day at the workplace is clearly a manifestation of a deep gender equality, it can also be taken as a manifestation of resistance of the OLs to the situation. On the day, the OLs would show resistance against male bosses or co-workers that have treated the OLs arrogantly or inconsiderably by giving such members of the company no or few chocolates (Ogasawara 104). The tactics of revenge may even be as intricate as purposefully delaying and handing of the chocolate, or even giving broken pieces of chocolates (Ogasawara 105). These tactics were especially effective since on Valentine’s Day, the number of chocolate that was present on a male employer’s desk was a barometer of his popularity and respect from the women, and “the difference between a popular and not-so-popular man was shamelessly exposed in the open office environment” (Ogasawara 102).
As we have seen, chocolate allows us to dive deep into the cultural issues the Japanese society. We saw that in the context of romantic relationships, the Japanese celebration of Valentine’s manifests the power balance, and chocolate was an amplifier of this cultural norm. We also saw that in the context of a workplace, the celebration was a manifestation of gender inequality and resistance. While the workplace environment and the situation around OLs have changed greatly today, the existence of Valentine’s Day and how it’s lack of change testifies that some of the key underlying gender issues have not gone away.
Gill, Rosalind Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising Feminism Psychology February 2008 vol. 18 no. 1 35-60
Ogasawara, Yuko. 1998. Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rupp, Katherine. 2003. Gift-giving in Japan: Cash, connections, cosmologies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Social Change and Gendered Gift-Giving Rituals: A Historical Analysis of Valentine’s Day in Japan Minowa, Yuko ; Khomenko, Olga ; Belk, Russell Journal of Macromarketing, Mar 2011, Vol.31(1), p.44 [Peer Reviewed Journal]