A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Valentine’s Day

Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Valentine’s Day

Janapese kimono with heart

We recently celebrated Valentine’s Day – the day to exchange cards, chocolates, or gifts with the people you love. There are numerous stories of the origins of this day for lovers – from the ancient Roman fertility rituals to the Christianization of the holiday in the 5th C; to the belief of Europeans in the 13th C that February was the beginning of mating season for birds; to the development of the greeting cards in Europe in the 17th C. This custom of sending a card eventually found its way to the US in the 18th Century.

Today it is estimated that in the U.S. alone about 1 billion cards are sent each year on Valentine’s Day, approximately 35 million boxes of candy are consumed, and roughly 220 million roses are grown for the occasion. Jewelry is entirely another dimension to this holiday! All in all, it has also been estimate that anywhere from $14-$20 billion dollars are spent annually by U.S. Americans in their pursuit of love. Traditionally, it has been the man’s responsibility to express his affection and appreciation for the woman, but as we know, it really depends on the individuals involved.

In Japan, however, Valentine’s Day is the day for women to pursue men with gifts of chocolates and since the 1950s has become a booming business with estimates as high as $5 billion in sales for all things Valentine. Traditionally it has been said that since Japan is not an expressive culture in terms of showing affection or emotion, there needed to be an outlet for women to be able to express their love (Of course, some will argue that this is a marketing strategy for chocolate companies!). Today we can debate how times have changed, but it is nevertheless an interesting cultural and historical perspective to ponder. So, for women in Japan, it is more complicated than for women in the U.S. since there are different levels of gift-giving and the types of chocolate given. And, depending on what is given, it sends a specific message to the recipient.Chocolates that are given to a special man are called ‘honmei choco’ which means he is a ‘prospective winner’ and the object of her love interests. Chocolates that are given to coworkers and other non-romantic male friends are the obligation chocolates called “giri choco’. As times change, so do the customs and now it is customary for women to exchange gifts with female friends, so this is called ‘tomo choco’ – or – ‘friend chocolates’. And, as all traditions advance over time, men are starting to give women chocolates on Valentine’s day, called “gyaku choco” which means reverse chocolate. But, it is more common for men to reciprocate a month later on March 14th which is called White Day. Men are expected to reciprocate (with more expensive chocolates), as it is customary within Japanese culture to return favors – a serious social obligation that should never be ignored.

The concept of ‘giri’ is an age-old social practice of mutual obligation among the Japanese – you enter into a web of friendship and obligation that continues for a life-time of sharing and reciprocating favors. It is similar to the mutual trust/obligation of the Chinese concept of ‘guanxi’.

So, why in Japan, one of the most masculine societies in the world (see Geert Hofstede’s website for an analysis of his national culture dimensions http://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html), are the roles reversed with women pursuing men during the Day of Love?

When we make cultural comparisons it’s easy to forget that while general comparisons can be made about a given culture based upon the majority (as with Hofstede’s explanations of national culture dimensions), we always have to account for the differences of individuals in any country. According to Hofstede’s research, a “masculine” culture refers to a society that leans towards competition, achievement and success (typically considered masculine roles within traditional society) whereas a “feminine” culture values cooperation and caring. If comparing the U.S. (63/100 on Hofstede’s scale) to Japan (100/100), it would appear to be a paradox that the women in Japan would assert a masculine role. This can be explained by the fact that all cultures are complex and paradoxical. A paradox is something that apparently contradicts itself, yet still might be true.

For example, Japanese tend to interact formally in business settings and provide the distance and respect expected by their bosses, but they break tradition when out drinking by becoming informal and quite direct, breaking all the rules of strict business protocol. Or, in the U.S., there is a historical tradition that values equality and low power distance; however many companies possess autocratic leaders, which is acceptable in that role and context.

Paradoxes are a complicated fact of life and we can agree or disagree with them based upon our individual experiences. It’s because each of us looks at reality in different ways – all based upon our frames of reference. This will be a topic of another blog, but for now, we’ve looked at the different perspectives of two cultures – the U.S. and the Japanese in relation to gift giving on Valentine’s Day. Surely it’s an interesting phenomenon!

Photo 123rf: Image credit: mkoudis / 123RF Stock Photo

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