Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's day in Japan ... the culture of giving

How a Western celebration has been Japanized

You don't have to live in Japan very long to notice the culture of giving. Many of the traditions go back for centuries to a society based on rice culture. During the planting and harvesting seasons, everyone needed a cooperative effort to get the jobs done. "I help you today, and you help me tomorrow". It is not hard to understand the importance of keeping good relations with your neighbors. 

This continued into the era where there was a  give and take among Warriors, Farmers, Craftsmen and Merchants, and a hierarchy was established in that order. (After all, the Lords were paid off in rice). 
I became aware of the two "gift-giving seasons" soon after arriving in Japan. Among my English students was a class that was made up of a doctor and a dentist and their families and friends. Twice a year, during mid summer and again at the year's end, I was passed bags of fruit and other edibles that had piled up in their houses faster than they could be consumed before spoiling. (The medical profession being rather high in the hierarchy).

Years later, when my husband had manager-type jobs in financial institutions, the gifts began to arrive at our door during those same times of year. I also remember there was a certain number of people to whom we were obligated to give gifts. Even these days, twice a year, gifts, usually of edibles, are exchanged. Right now we are still consuming the last of a box of apples and a box of oranges and a giant salmon that arrived before Christmas. Just as the dentist friend, we take a few of those things to other homes in the neighborhood or to relatives so they can be consumed before they spoil.

So ... what does this have to do with Valentine's Day?  Somewhere in the 50's, a well known Chocolate company promoted valentine's day as the time for a girl to give a box of expensive chocolates to some guy that she wanted to attract. I suppose some attractive guys got lots of chocolate, while others may have been depressed by getting nothing. To even things out, there was also cheaper chocolates for the girl to give to other guys in the office out of obligation. Can you imagine the guy who mistakes the chocolate for a gift of affection? Or the wife, whose husband brings home a big box of expensive chocolate?  Oh yes, every year my husband brings home boxes of chocolate but so far, no one has stolen him away. Now we have guys looking at the value of the gift and wondering the reason behind it. Valentine cards? Forget it. Those are for pre-school kids!

And... since this is a gift-giving culture ... there needs to be a day when those guys can give back. Thus, "White Day" was created a month later, March 14th, when the guys return the gifts. Men are expected to return gifts that are at least two or three times more valuable than what they received. A marshmallow company tried to promote their product but white chocolate and even gifts of jewelry, accessories, and even lingerie are usual. 

The romantic "date night" ? Not on valentines day. That is celebrated at Christmas. 
As an aside, my husband says a survey shows a trend toward more modernization of times in that women are less likely to need a special opportunity to express their admiration or gratitude to men.
What that will mean to the chocolate industry, I have no idea. As of now, they make half their annual sales during this time of year.  Also, I have told my husband that I won't give him chocolates (he is diabetic) if he promises not to get me lingerie. 

So, what is happening in the quilting department? This silk with the stabilizer is layered over other pieces plus the kasuri background. Quilting through all these layers is less than a picnic! The large area of the fish body will need some kind of quilting and I am considering rather large scale scales in random groups.

When I consider all those Tokyo Dome quilts with their tiny tiny stitches, I don't know how those quilters could get such small stitches in this kind of fabric other than stab-stitching. I keep telling my Scouts, "Just do your best and that's good enough". I guess the time has come for me to follow my own advice.

Just maybe a cup of coffee and a taste of chocolate  ... to get in the mood.
Happy Valentine's Day to all my blogging friends! 


  1. Coffee and chocolates, wonderful, enjoy your day, The fish is truly spectacular, but lots of stitching to be done!!! Greetings, Jean.

  2. Maybe your husband can give you chocolates and you can give him lingerie. Or at least boxer shorts :) More fascinating and complicated Japanese tradition. I think I would make a gazillion blunders in that culture.

  3. Excellent blog post with so much information. I just had to put a link to your site on my own blog and hope that is OK with you.
    Large scales on that beautiful carp are good, refrain from quilting each shibori ring. That would be punishment!

  4. Julie
    thank you so much for the great insight to such a wonderful culture. I love to learn about different traditions. Happy Valentine's day to you.

  5. Thanks so much Julie for this interesting post :)

    Happy Valentine's day to you :)

    Blessing from France,

  6. Happy Valentine's Day to you and your husband. Love your Koi quilt, it is beautiful! My daughter has two Koi, and they are growing at an alarming rate. She loves her fish!

  7. Did you draw your own patterns for the fish, or, did you find them somewhere? They would be really pretty done in batiks instead of the hard to work with silks from the kimonos.

  8. Such an interesting post, Julie. It's really amazing to me how Valentine's Day can be celebrated so differently in Japan than in the United States.

  9. Happy Valentine's Day, Julie. Enjoy your chocolates. I enjoyed the history of Valentines in Japan. And the fish quilt is moving along. I agree with you about doing your best. Your best looks really good from here :)

  10. Happy Valentine's Day! My husband and I have celebrated Valentine's Day Japanese style for the past three years. We love it! I buy him lots of chocolate on Valentine's Day, cook a great dinner, and then he tries to outdo me on White Day. ;) ;) ;) We have a lot of fun with it.

    Your quilt is coming along beautifully! I look forward to seeing it quilted.

  11. Happy Valentine's Day to you! Your quilting stitches look gorgeous. I can see why you love the kasuri fabric. Also, we are amazed by your selection of fabrics for the fish. Perhaps you explained this earlier -? It looks as if you fussy cut the fabrics for the fish... it looks so realistic!

  12. It is fascinating to see how cultures adapt traditions of others in their own special way. Thank you for a very interesting insight!

  13. What a wonderful account of the development of chocolate giving to Valentines in Japan. How complicated this whole thing is, I'm glad I've got Al!! We don't "do" Valentine's Day anymore (he says, "everyday is Valentine's Day with you darling" - you can response "bless" or "yeuch" as you like!!) but do have a special meal out sometime in February. You will like this story from my DD's school days, I think she was 8 or 9 and gave a boy at school a Valentine's card and a bar of chocolate. He very rudely said he didn't want the card. She promptly told he him wasn't having the chocolate either in that case and took it from him!! Go girl.
    Ha ha, on the subject of belief is that there is a whole pile of red/black lingerie that just goes round and round. Men buy it at Christmas, women take it back in January, the shops put it away until next December...
    I have rambled on, the koi looks great, have a super weekend - I'm off to a hen night - now is that something that's done in Japan?

  14. I love reading your blog---you always have such interesting posts about your life in Japan. I hope I get to visit that country one day. I went to China in August, and had a fabulous time.

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