Lost in translation: The cultural divide over Valentine’s Day
Customs are local conventions inspired by universal impulses
kindergarten students everywhere, Japanese kindergartners are enthusiastic celebrants of their calendar’s seasonal holidays. So, 20 years ago, as a newly hired kindergarten teacher in Tomobe, Japan, a rural farming town two hours north of Tokyo, I tried to incorporate holiday customs in my classroom activities. On my first Valentine’s Day in Japan, I decided to give all the girls in my class a heart-shaped chocolate. The boys would receive sweets, too; but of the everyday variety.
It was a small, well-intentioned disaster. My male students compared their candies with the much more alluring chocolate of- ferings I gave the girls and let out a loud, collective wail of “Eeeenah!” This is the sound Japanese children make to express envy. Hearing the boys’ disappointed outcry, I glanced nervously at the Japanese homeroom teacher. I hoped she would explain to the boys that Valentine’s Day is universally regarded as a girl’s special day; but the teacher looked as perplexed as the boys.
Later, it was explained to me that the Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day differently than we do in Canada. For the Japanese, Feb. 14 is a day when women honour the special men in their lives with gifts of chocolate and other sweet offerings. The female equivalent of Valentine’s Day comes a month later on what the Japanese call “White Day,” a name coined by a Japanese marshmallow manufacturer that concocted the celebration in the mid-1960s as a day for men to reciprocate Valentine gifts with soft, velvety marshmallow offerings to the special women in their lives.
So my exclusive present of chocolate hearts to my female kindergarten students on St. Valentine’s Day was, from a Japanese perspective, doubly wrong-headed. Paradoxically, this cultural faux pas endeared me to my Japanese hosts, sparing me from the Henna Gaijin or “strange foreigner” epithet they use to mock foreigners whose knowledge of Japanese ways is a little too far-reaching. I soon found out that “not-Japaneseness” is a virtue, if not exactly a word, for guest workers in Japan like myself.
The Valentine’s Day blunder was just the first of many cultur- al landmines I stepped on in my decade-long experience as an outsider inside Japan. What I came to understand is that there are local equivalents in Japan for every Western celebration. They just don’t always fall on the same calendar day. For example, the romantic “date night” we celebrate on Valentine’s Day takes place in Japan on Christmas Eve. That’s when Japanese lovers exchange presents and go on romantic outings with their honmei, or true sweethearts.
Similarly, Japanese children find their Christmas morning not on Dec. 25, but one week later on New Year’s Day. On this date, a Japanese child’s garden of Christmas presents is miniaturized, as the Japanese are wont to do, inside small, brightly coloured envelopes of money, called otoshidamas.
This observation that cultural customs are local conventions inspired by universal impulses is not original with me. Shakespeare implied as much when he wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or as any Japanese child would surely agree, “An otoshidama by any other name would be as sweetly received.”
In my last year in Japan, the director of my kindergarten asked me to play host to a Canada Cultural Day for my students. And so I did, choosing tidbits of Canadian cultural facts that might be of interest to young Japanese minds. I remember that the most intriguing fact about Canada for my young audience was the notion that Canadians do not traditionally eat mochi, or rice cakes, but we do use rice in the preparation of a dessert called rice pudding.
Of all the ways the Japanese have thought up to eat rice, my young students could not fathom that rice could also be consumed as a dessert pudding. “Honto?” they asked, questioning the veracity of what I just said in a politely disbelieving tone of voice.
At the end of my presentation, questions on Canada were invited from the floor. My two favourites were the following: Do you have a moon in Canada? Do you have McDonald’s in Canada? Canada’s reputation as a destination worth visiting was sealed by my ability to answer both questions in the affirmative.
Here’s a thought. Should you find yourself between valentines today, why not go to a McDonald’s restaurant, order a take-out Happy Meal and eat it while gazing up at the Canadian moon? It might not be very romantic, but it will be very exotic to a Japanese child’s mind on the other side of the world.
Happy Valentine’s Day.