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In Japan, women give chocolates to men on Valentine's Day, and men give gifts to women on White Day, which falls on March 14.

There are various claims that Valentine's Day and White Day customs are retailer inventions in Japan and neighbouring countries.

One is that Valentine's Day is a retailer invention:

Wikipedia on Valentine's Day in Japan

In Japan, Morozoff Ltd. introduced the holiday for the first time in 1936, when it ran an advertisement aimed at foreigners. Later in 1953 it began promoting the giving of heart-shaped chocolates; other Japanese confectionery companies followed suit thereafter. In 1958 the Isetan department store ran a "Valentine sale". Further campaigns during the 1960s popularized the custom.[63][64]

Another is that the tradition of women giving chocolates to men (rather than the opposite in western countries) is the result of a translation error by one of the retailers:

The custom that only women give chocolates to men appears to have originated from the translation error of a chocolate-company executive during the initial campaigns.[65][citation needed] [the citation given repeats the claim, but isn't confident that the claim is actually true]

Another source (So, what the heck is that? White Day) contradicts this, giving a different explanation to why it's girls giving to boys:

The concept finally took off in the 1970s when marketers began promoting inexpensive valentine chocolates as a means for schoolgirls to express their interest in a boy without having to say so in words.

And another is that the name "White Day" is a retailer invention:

In the 1980s the Japanese National Confectionery Industry Association launched a successful campaign to make March 14 a "reply day", where men are expected to return the favour to those who gave them chocolates on Valentine's Day, calling it White Day for the color of the chocolates being offered. A previous failed attempt to popularize this celebration had been done by a marshmallow manufacturer who wanted men to return marshmallows to women.[63][64]

The "So, what the heck is that? White Day" column gives even more details on the conspiracy:

In the course of my research I came across a photo of the original planning committee. I don't know what I was expecting -- a female conspiracy? -- but I was somehow disappointed to see that the great minds behind White Day were just typical oyaji (middle-aged men), a cabal of gray suits at the Keio Plaza Hotel. According to the official White Day Web site, the committee chose the name "White Day" because white is the color of purity, and they hoped to evoke images of pure, sweet teen love. It helped that white is also the color of sugar, the main ingredient of chocolate.

Are these related claims (that Valentine Day was retailer created, that women giving to men was the result of a translation error, and that White Day was a concept created by retailers) true?

Why am I skeptical?

  1. I've encountered other bogus claims about holidays being created by retailers: Was the modern Santa Claus created by CocaCola? and Is Mother's Day an invention of florists? . See also the sarcastic comment "No doubt, Black Day [a celebration in South Korea on April 14] is just a ploy by the powerful Korean noodle industry." in White Day: Japan’s Answer To Valentine’s Day
  2. For a "Hallmark Holiday" (Wikipedia actually puts "Hallmark Holiday" in White Day's "See also"), the greeting card industry doesn't get much activity around Valentine's day or White Day. If they were retailer-invented holidays, wouldn't the greeting card industry get a cut of the action?
  3. For a retailer-created holiday, Valentine's Day has become very sophisticated and Japanese. As well as honmei-choko (本命チョコ, favorite chocolate) which is chocolate given to your love, there's giri-choko (義理チョコ, obligation chocolate) given to male co-workers, chō-giri choko given to unpopular male co-workers, and tomo-choko (友チョコ, friendship chocolate) given to friends, especially female ones. Would a made-up holiday become that sophisticated?
  4. If the claim about "White Day" is to be believed, a marshmallow company tried and failed (in the short term) to sell marshmallows on a day, but succeeded in starting the idea of "White Day"?
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    I'm having trouble seeing the contradictions here. If White Day was invented by a committee from Japanese National Confectionery Industry Association, then the greeting card industry lost out. A marshmallow company tried to make a day (unclear what date), but failed. Instead, the White Day succeeded. And yes, 50 years is plenty of time for elaborate traditions - the Super Bowl isn't that old. (Oh wait, you are Australian! Um, Sydney Harbour Fireworks on NYE is only 12 years old; not really the same is it?) – Oddthinking Mar 16 '12 at 13:17
  • @Oddthinking I don't see a problem here either. Its also worth noting that point 1, on Santa Clause was that the artist Nast invented the character earlier, but it does mention specifically "All this isn't to say that Coca-Cola didn't have anything to do with cementing the modern image of Santa Claus in the public consciousness." – AthomSfere May 2 '13 at 11:25
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    "Would a made-up holiday become that sophisticated" -- all holidays are essentially made-up. Just look at religions. It starts with some guy having a good idea on how to manage society and end up with literally millions of lanterns floating down the Ganges every year. – slebetman Mar 16 '16 at 7:06
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Isabel Anderson, wife of US ambassador to Japan (December 1912-March 1913) Larz Anderson, wrote in her book The Spell of Japan:

On St. Valentine's day I took some presents out to Watanabe's house, where I had asked all the children of the compound to gather. There were about a dozen of them, sitting on mats and making a very pretty group. ... Then I told Osame to translate and tell them how, on St. Valentine's day, people in America send each other verses — sometimes love-verses, sometimes comic verses — but that as I couldn't write any in Japanese for them I had brought some little gifts instead.

However, it was much later that celebration of Valentine's Day became customary in Japan.

In 1949 Scene: The International East-West Magazine printed an article Japan has a 'Valentine's Day':

After discussing similarities to " 'hoshi-matsuri' (Star Festival) or 'tanabata matsuri' ... celebrated July 7 " it is stated concerning actual Valentine's Day:

Western style Valentines recently made their appearance in Japan in post exchanges at U.S. Army bases. Manufactured in Japan, such Valentines, as the one reproduced in connection with this article, are crude tokens of a lover's sentiments. American soldiers, for lack of anything else, send them to wives and sweethearts in the States. But some soldiers send them to their Japanese girl friends. Most Japanese, however, never have heard of Valentine's Day and it is unlikely that they ever will.

In 1962, in Antioch review, Volume 22, Keith McGary in Japan on a one year sabbatical wrote:

We forgot entirely about Valentine's day: we saw no ads, no candy hearts were for sale, no shorts or panties with hearts, nothing on the radio. St. Valentine is not a local saint.

In 1978 a former resident of Japan wrote in Covenant Companion, Volume 67:

Did you know ... that Valentine's Day is celebrated a little differently in Japan? Here the women give chocolate to the men, not vice versa. Any of you fellows want to celebrate February 14 Japanese style this year?

Japan '79: A New York Times Survey says:

on Valentine's day Japanese women give the presents.

According the 1988 Sales, service, and sanctity: an anthropological analysis of Japanese department stores

Valentine's Day was first brought to Japan by an executive of the Mary Chocolate Co. who had been in Europe near the time of the romantic day. According to the company's version of events, a poor translation resulted in his understanding that Valentine's Day was set aside as a day for women to send chocolates to men. The following year (1958), the company began its Japanese promotion of Valentine's Day but had little success. A company spokesman is quoted as saying, "During one week, we sold only about three chocolates worth Y170 at that time" (Fujimoto 8 Feb. 1987). The chocolate companies were persistent, and retailing concerns also joined in the struggle to get Valentine's Day going. A Department Store Association representative claims that it was the chocolate companies that made it big, and that department stores too really pushed for it through advertising. Part of department stores annual effort includes devising new ways to attract customers to Valentine's sales.

Here the "Fujimoto" reference is: Kazuko Fujimoto, "Women Sweeten Men With Valentine Chocolates" Japan Times, February 8, 1987.

Another 1988 article, For the Taste of Love, in Asiaweek, Volume 14, says that it was specifically Hara Kunio of Mary Chocolate who got women to buy chocolate for Valentine's Day in Japan, and that he got a card from Europe explaining Valentine's day, rather than actually traveling to Europe.

A 1995 article Chocolate and the Meaning of Valentine’s Day in Japan says:

Fujiya Company, in instructing its retail stores on this new holiday, felt heartshaped chocolates should be given to lovers, intimate friends, mothers, grand mothers, sisters, and admired teachers suggestions that imply most chocolate should be given to women, especially members of the family. On the other hand, Mary Chocolate, as we have seen, advertised Valentine’s Day as appropriate for women to "confess love through presenting chocolate," presumably to men. Finally, Morinaga Company, in its early promotions, suggested women should buy chocolates and give them to men but, in its ads, depicted a woman eating the chocolate herself!

In sum, how Valentine’s Day was to be celebrated in Japan was not at all clear at the beginning. The chocolate companies, by their early appropriation of the holiday as a potential marketing tool, focused Japanese attention on chocolate as the appropriate gift to give, rather than written or printed communications of affection. But who should give chocolate to whom was an open question, not to be completely agreed upon for a decade or so of cultural negotiation. But by the latter half of the 1970s, the Japanese had settled on exclusively female-to-male gift giving.

According to the 1988 Dentsu Japan Marketing/advertising Yearbook:

After all, St. Valentine's Day gifting ignores the other half of the population, the males, as buyers. For some time, the concept of a “Return Valentine” has been simmering. A serious attempt is now being made to bring it to the boil through the label of “White Day.” The precise origin is obscure but is ascribed by some, to small confectioners coming up with the idea that the boys should reciprocate the chocolate gift with other forms of confectionery. Marshmallow was one of the items pushed, as white was to be a lucky color. In 1979, the Japan Confectionery Association officially designated March 14th as White Day for the promotion of their wares in a flagging market.

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