There are a lot of confusing holidays for foreigners in Japan. What exactly do we do on Respect the Aged Day? Ocean Day? Why is Green Day a day off (and not a band with a 3-chord repertoire), but White Day a non-vacation “holiday” that carries obligations in the office.
I can’t answer anything about Green Day- the band or Holiday- but I’ll try to clear up a little bit about my experience with White Day, and how to navigate the office politics.
Why White Day Matters
As I mentioned above, this is a holiday that carries obligations in the office and is directly related to another holiday with office obligations, Valentine’s Day (what, you thought that was for romance? No.) The office obligations of both Valentine’s Day and White Day have fallen slightly out of fashion lately, but the larger the office you’re in, the more likely it is that there will be one or two folks who hang on to the old traditions, so it’s best to know- even if only to know in advance that you’re going to have to pull out your “Foreigner Card” to get out of it.
The Valentine’s Day Connection
Traditionally, on Valentine’s Day, women would give chocolates to all the men in their office or class. These chocolates came to be called giri-choco, or obligatory chocolates, and the tradition certainly has its opponents. To get in to the types of chocolate and their meanings on Valentine’s Day is a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that, regardless of the meaning, if you receive chocolates on Valentine’s Day, you have also received a White Day obligation.
In the old-fashioned Japanese office, men outnumbered women by a significant margin, so women who gave chocolates on Valentines Day could expect to see a large return. I have seen the phrase sanbai kaeshi, or “three-times return” used in some old references as an expectation. This year, one TV station went around interviewing women on the street about their “White Day rate of return”, and concluded that breaking even was unlikely for giri-choco, but that sweets and gifts given to significant others or close friends had a success rate close to breaking even.
Presumably, the old 3x rate of return was related to the traditionally high male:female ratio in offices. However, the ratio is approaching an even level now, or in some cases completely flipped. In every single one of my Japanese offices, the women have dramatically outnumbered the men. It was 19-2 at one point in my last office and a much more manageable 6-3 in my current one. Many “international offices” in Japan seem to have a high ratio of women, so this is a problem many of us foreign men will face. What is the appropriate amount of return?
What do you do if, like my office, only a few women give out the obligatory Valentine’s chocolates?
White Day: Make a Plan
If you are not the only man in your office, get together with the others and make a plan, especially if you’re outnumbered. Don’t feel pressured to out-do the Valentine’s Day gifts- if you’re working at a place where people are expecting in 3x return, you’re probably in an antiquated, miserable working environment, anyway. Don’t even feel pressured to give an even return. The effort to reciprocate will be appreciated — more so as foreigners aren’t expected to understand — and anyone that breaks out their calculator to compare gifts and returns isn’t worth trying to satisfy anyway. Work out your gift plan between the men, pool your resources, and find someone in the group with a decent understanding of the women in your office to lead the purchasing decisions.
Of course, if you all decide to ignore White Day, you don’t want to go against the other men in your office, as you’re going to make them look bad, and any favor you curry with your female coworkers will be negated by the silent, smoldering anger of the men. If you are faced with this dilemma, I recommend erring on the sex that represents the larger proportion of your cohort, not the sex of your supervisor. Without going into too much detail, your supervisor doesn’t have all that much ability or will to influence your promotion or pay.
If you are going to give out gifts, provide for all of the women, not just the ones that gave out chocolates. This might make a few of them feel temporarily uncomfortable (“I didn’t get you anything”), but in the long run, I firmly believe they will appreciate the gesture and will remember your generosity later. They might be a little stressed when they have to come up with your Valentine’s Day chocolate, but until that point, you’re looking at least a small bump in office favor.
When All Else Fails: “I was trying to do the right thing.”
This year, I did not coordinate with the men in my office. I made cookies and passed them out first thing in the morning before my officemates arrived, only to learn later that my boss had bought little handcreams to distribute on behalf of all of us, at lunch time. That was a minor embarassment, since I ended up looking like I was trying to one-up my coworkers, but that is why I have my “It’s not my tradition, I was just trying to do the right thing” foreigner card! Incidentally, I recommend using that card liberally. Your Japanese office-mates may struggle with the concept that you have different traditions and do not want to give them up to embrace the Japanese ones in their place, so if you can’t get that across (politely) in social interaction, the foreigner card is a decent resort.
White Day for Couples
Hopefully, if you’re in a relationship, then there is nothing obligatory about the gifts you give one another. For our family, we both give each other little gifts on Valentine’s Day or, more often, cook something the other likes. My American tradition is to give something to my wife. Her Japanese tradition is to give something to me. At the risk of sounding Hallmark Card-sickly sweet, we do it because it’s a good excuse to stop and think about how fortunate we are to be in this relationship together, not because the calendar tells us to.
Likewise, while neither of us have strong feelings toward White Day, we use it as an excuse to give each other gifts and remind each other how much we love each other. When our day-to-day life is occupied with our children, it’s good to have a reminder to focus on the relationship between spouses, too.
I’ve written before about how hard it is to find flowers in Japan on Valentine’s Day. I wasn’t able to do it this year, since I had forgotten to look up local florists early enough. White Day was a great opportunity to make up for that. The Valentine’s Day failure was a wake-up call that gave me a month to find a florist for White Day. But even then, it came down to the last minute!
Up until the week before White Day, the only florists I’d found in Akita were little kiosks outside of supermarkets without much selection. Specifically, they did not have enough roses. I know very little about flowers, but I do know that some flowers in Japan are only to be used on graves, and that these are going to be the most commonly sold ones at supermarkets. I also know that roses are not part of this group of flowers, so they are safe.
No Flower Delivery for the North
I tried to order roses online, only to have my order rejected by three different florists who would not deliver to my area. If you live in northern Japan, many florists will not deliver to your area during the cold months. Worse, they will accept your order, then check the temperatures, then get back to you to cancel, several days later. Which means that up until the day before White Day, you might think that you had flowers arriving the next day, only to receive an overly formal and ultimately worthless apology email from the company.
So go local!
Fortunately, at the last minute, I managed to find a large florist in my town that actually had a website (a rare thing for a Japanese local business). Since I was out of time, I found an arrangement on their website and called to confirm that it was available for pick-up later that day. As much of a struggle as it is, even when you speak Japanese decently well, calling the shop, talking to a person (and getting their name), and placing your order is still the most certain way here to make sure that things get done. Internet business, which many of us from overseas see as a sure thing, is far less reliable in Japan, so stick with real people.
Besides, buying local is never a bad thing!
Is there anything else you want to know about Valentine’s Day or White Day in Japan? Did my explanation conflict with your experience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, below.