Montreal Gazette

Lost in trans­la­tion: The cul­tural di­vide over Valen­tine’s Day

Cus­toms are lo­cal con­ven­tions in­spired by uni­ver­sal im­pulses

- RON HUZA Good News · Valentine's Day · Celebrations · Sweets · Food · Japan · Tokyo · Shakespeare · McDonald's · Romeo and Juliet


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.

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