St. Valentine and Love in the Land of the Rising Sun

Valentine’s Day is in under a week, and though I’m thousands of miles away from the V-Day I know, this is probably the first time I’ve really cared about the holiday since middle school. Valentine’s Day is a thing here, but it’s probably not what you’d expect. It’s a lot different. As I’ve been told, it is observed as a day for girls and women to show their adoration and respect for men. Women give chocolates or cakes to their colleagues and lovers. Thankfully, some women also give chocolate to their lady friends, so it’s not completely about men or romantic feelings, but for the most part, men have all the fun. Heart-shaped chocolates and red and pink decorations line shop windows, but as far as I know, no one is rushing to make reservations for the most romantic restaurant they can find. What’s worse is that women who give chocolate are not thanked for their gifts until White Day a month later.

This video, from a Japanese language learning site, explains it better than I can.

making your own chocolate is really popular among young women

making your own chocolate is really popular among young women

chocolate decorations

chocolate decorations

As a foreign lady, I briefly thought, “Man! I really have to do something one-sided for my boyfriend?! I’m modern, dammit!” But really, I don’t feel this way. It’s normal for foreigners in Japan to question and criticize everything different. Though in this case I guess it’s okay, because Valentine’s is about as commercial as holidays get. Anyway, I really don’t care. I’d feed my boyfriend boxes of chocolates and pieces of cake everyday for eternity if I knew he wouldn’t develop major health problems and a massive gut. If only carrots and soup were acceptable gifts…Besides, I’m not so sure he’s really into all these strange Western holidays. For Christmas, which is really more for couples anyway, my man and I made a metal R2-D2 model and ate okonomiyaki with his dad. We exchanged presents and all that jazz, but he said, “I’m not Christian. I don’t celebrate Christmas.” I feel we are equally cynical in that regard. I honestly find it so strange getting all dressed up and being especially lovey-dovey for one night. People who use a few days of the year to celebrate their partners and show their love are silly. Everyday should be such a celebration.

Which brings me to a really interesting point. Love, in general, is shown quite differently in Japan. For those of you who aren’t familiar, public displays of affection are minimal in this country. In America, it’s common to see couples holding hands, hugging, kissing, and sometimes full on making out in public. In Japan, not so much. Once I saw a couple here making out in a movie theater and I almost had a heart attack. It just doesn’t happen often, unless of course alcohol is involved. Even then, bars down here aren’t exactly swarming with kissing couples. People keep their desires in check out in the streets and for whatever reason, love in Japan is kept mostly behind doors.

I respect this, and have made a solid effort to not hang all over my boyfriend when people can see us. If our company is exclusively Japanese, I barely touch him. If it’s his parents? Well, obviously we act like virgin school kids. I understand that the culture is different and that lack of physical contact does not mean he doesn’t care about me, but as an American I do occasionally feel slightly rejected. It’s a weird feeling to describe, and I’m still working on balancing that out. I have to constantly remember than I stick out naturally, and that my boyfriend is a local businessman. Especially “non-Japanese” behavior could really get him in trouble.

What I find strange is that some forms of affection seem slightly forbidden for Japanese couples. Many Americans express their love for each other often. Japanese people, for the most part, do not. When I was in America, I noticed this all over again. My friend and her boyfriend would hold hands and gaze into each others eyes in public. No one else mattered. In Japan, I often ask myself if two people sitting at a table together are even in a relationship, and I’ve never really heard a Japanese couple express their love openly to each other. However, when my boyfriend and I drink with our international group of friends, he’ll get playfully mean and say things like, “I’m mad at you. I don’t like you.” “You don’t like me?!” “No, I love you!”

It makes me feel really nice–him being so rabu rabu (love-love, as in lovey-dovey) as we say in Japanese. But in my year and half in Japan, I have never heard a Japanese couple say such things to each other. I’ve never seen them be “cute” in the American sense. I have heard of students freaking out when they see foreign couples say nice things and kiss. Yes, because it doesn’t happen often, but also because I think they really enjoy seeing romantic things. Clearly visible love is like a Hollywood movie to them. Japan is just…different, I guess. I don’t think all these differences necessarily mean one country’s couples are happier than the others. I don’t know enough. It’s all just very interesting to me, and I’m not trying to take sides or anything. These are all just my personal observations.

It makes you wonder though. Could my culture and this new culture learn from each other? Maybe Japanese people could use a little more PDA. I do believe that it is important for young people to see loving relationships outside of their families. It just continues the chain of healthy relationships. Then again, maybe Americans are too demanding. Maybe we expect too much reassurance that our partners still love us and won’t leave us. Maybe Americans are annoying in that sense. Eventually you learn to live according to the new cultures standards, so maybe it isn’t so bad, but part of me really does like all that sappy, romantic stuff. Though it does make it more special when it happens less frequently, right?

Love is a universally human emotion, but it certainly manifests itself differently over the world. It’s one of the reasons international relationships take special care. They are by no means impossible, obviously, but without proper communication, they can easily crumble. I feel like I’m doing okay so far though!

Though my actual job title is Assistant Language Teacher, I feel like it should be Culture Teacher, because as an international resident of Japan, I can teach my students a lot about the world. I can use my experiences in their country to give them an outside perspective. They ALWAYS ask me if I have a boyfriend. Almost every day this happens. For some reason, it used to make me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s that I’d accepted the more “love is private” mentality or something, but I never used to answer properly. I’d usually make them ask me again in English, and in the time it took them to form the sentence, I could calm myself and say, “It’s a secret.” However, recently I’ve decided not to be so afraid to tell my students that I have a boyfriend. It is private, but now I don’t think it would hurt so much for my students to know that I care enough about someone to put up with their crazy shenanigans for another year. (In case that was a secret, I’m not staying in Japan only to hang out with crazy kids all week.) I want to be able to talk to my students about these differences between America and Japan. Plus, a lot of my students have already seen us together, so it really isn’t a secret anymore. 

As a Culture Teacher, I have also taken this approaching holiday as an opportunity to school them on American V-day. The boys all freak out when I tell them boys give girls presents and candy in America. One 9th grader said to me with a slightly rising intonation, “Hey, I love you?”

-“Oh, you love me? So will you buy me chocolate for Valentine’s Day?”
-“What? You buy me chocolate.”
-“No no. In America, you would give me chocolate. Besides, I don’t have any money.”
-“Ok. I give you chocolate, you give me chocolate. Ok?”

First of all, props to my students for being able to have almost complete conversations in English. Second, either my 9th graders are just being nice because they are graduating soon, or I’m a great ALT. This situation occurred three separate times last week. “Kori, I love you,” to which I replied every time, “Good, now give me chocolate.”

Happy Valentine's Day! Buy yourself some chocolate!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Buy yourself some chocolate!

–As always, thanks for reading! If you have any questions, leave a comment!