On March 14, in Japan, Taiwan and even South Korea, people will be celebrating a kind of second Valentine’s Day, known as White Day. While Valentine's Day in the West is a give-and-receive event, where couples exchange chocolates and gifts, it works a bit differently in Japan and other countries.
The last few weeks in Tokyo have seen stores displaying and selling white chocolate, various marshmallow confectionaries and assorted gifts (usually in white packages) for this big event. So what is this white-themed holiday, and where did originate from?
The fast and short answer is that White Day is the male counterpart to Valentine’s Day in Japan, where the tradition is that women give expensive chocolates to men they're romantically involved with, and cheaper chocolates to their coworkers, bosses and sometime older brothers. White Day may not be as big as a retail holiday as Valentine's Day, but in 2014 it was nearly a $578 million market.
How it all began
According to the United States Department of Commerce and other sources, White Day is actually the invention of a small confectionary shop, Ishimura Manseido, in the Hakata region in the 1970s. In 1977, an executive of the company, Zengo Ishimura, was reading a woman’s magazine looking for inspiration. One letter caught his attention.
A woman wrote, “It’s not really fair that men get chocolate from women on Valentine’s Day but they don’t return the favor. Why don’t they give us something? A handkerchief, candy, even marshmallows...”
Ishimura reasoned, if women would be happy to receive even marshmallows in return for their Valentine’s Day gifts, why not invent a special day for men so that they could express their gratitude? He also concocted a new sweet to express that sentiment, made of marshmallow paste with chocolate stuffed inside.
At a company meeting, he asked the female employees to choose a day for women to get treated with gifts; March 14, exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, was the winner. In 1978, with the cooperation of a local department store, Iwataya, the very first “White Day” was celebrated, but under the name “Marshmallow Day.” The store later suggested changing the name to the more open-ended “White Day,” a reference to the marshmallow, and thus a tradition was born. By the 1980s, White Day had spread all over Japan and began to include white chocolate and other tangibles as acceptable gifts. Taiwan and South Korea also adopted the custom.
Kaori Shoji, essayist and author, says that White Day is one of her favorite holidays and is a huge retail event in the country. “A decade ago, Valentine’s Day and White Day were big deals and older salarymen [white collar workers] with female subordinates were expected to generously reciprocate whatever they got in giri-choco (義理チョコ/obligation chocolates) four-fold.”
Shoji commented that at many offices it's now customary for men to all chip in for a big box of sweets for the female staff. However, treats for romantic partners require a larger gesture. In recent years, that includes buying expensive pudding (プリン) from famous shops.
Shoji says, “Most women know which shop carries the best pudding and it goes without saying that the packaging must be Instagrammable. Bonus points if the guy got in line to purchase the pudding. Extra bonus points if the guy took a selfie of himself waiting in line, and then sent it to his girlfriend whereupon she can post that on Instagram as evidence of how much he loves her.”
But Shoji also noted that White Day seems less popular each year as men and women both find the gift-giving obligations tedious and fewer woman are giving "true love" chocolates to anyone. The Kinenbi Culture Laboratory(記念日文化研究所), an institute that researches how people enjoy and consume during Japanese holidays, also cited that as a reason they expect the 2018 White Day market in Japan to contract 10% compared to last year, to $500 million dollars. White Day in Japan, ultimately depends on men receiving gifts for Valentine's Day, and if fewer women give the gifts, White Day takes a steep hit.
They also cited the lack of a hit, must-have product for White Day. Though one confectionary company in Tokyo is trying to make its mark. It is selling special Rose Karinto (花林糖) (sweet fried doughsticks) and uses Japanese rose petals to make them all the more romantic. Like many companies in Japan and Taiwan, it is hoping to have a product that will be "the gift" to give.
There are opportunities for western firms to get in on the market, particularly in the field of chocolates and luxury chocolates, according to the U.S. Commercial Service in their 2016 "A Study of Japan’s Valentine’s and White Day Markets." However, "The secret to success seems to be a local presence with a flagship shop, a dedicated Japanese marketing team, and Japan specific products. Websites must be in flawless Japanese, and dedicated Japanese speaking customer service staff are a must."
Source: Jake Adelstein, Forbes