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Thursday, March 13, 2003

BILINGUAL

OK guys, it's payback time


By KAORU SHOJI

Oh heck. It's that time of year again, the dreaded White Day that forces us males to dispense several mansatsu (10,000 yen bills) whether we're ready to or not.

In case you weren't aware, White Day (March 14) is one of those bogus Japanese events dreamed up by some marketing agency and decreed as the day all males give gifts to whichever woman was nice enough to present them with chocolates on Valentine's Day. This applies to every female with a fondness for dispensing chocolates, down to those who distribute cheap little bon-bons known as giri-choco (obligatory chocolates) to bosses and colleagues with that tight-lipped, dutiful aura.

Did we like, ORDER these women to buy chocolates? Nooooo. But now we have to return the favors anyway.

Every year, the bucho (general manager) in my section prepares for March 14 weeks in advance, hording stacks of designer handkerchiefs, little jars of cookies, coffee cups and the like. He says that at home, his wife gives him a hard time about the yokeina shuppi (unwanted expenditure).

Poor guy. When it comes to events like Valentine's Day and Christmas, they're rigged to benefit the woman while we're left sighing into our empty wallets. And the Western world thinks Japanese women are the endure-it-all, repressed creatures of a century ago! Repressed? Ha! They wouldn't know such a thing if it bit them on their Ferragamo-shod heels.

Speaking of Ferragamo shoes, I'll have you know that I once had to buy a pair for a woman and we weren't even going out! It was because she gave me an expensive tie for Valentine's, with a little card that said: "Honmei desu (You're my true love)." Honmei (genuine), which is the polar opposite of giri (obligation), sounds on the surface like a romantic term, but it's not. Ever since some marketing guy popularized the phrase "Honmei choco niwa yonbai-gaeshi (Gifts from serious girls must be returned fourfold)," the whole thing has just become a shopping ritual.

I'll never forget the year my girlfriend at the time gave me a cute little bag of tezukuri choco (handmade chocolates). I got all choked up and asked her what she wanted for White Day, and it was like uttering a magic phrase. She immediately stood up, charged with energy, and pulled me down to the nearest Tiffany's counter in one swift, coordinated motion. The counter was full of couples exactly like ourselves, with the girls pointing and the guys nodding. I reminded myself of that most important of Japanese male virtues -- Otoko wa damatte kane wo dasu (A man just shuts up and pays)" -- nodded wordlessly like everyone else and pulled out my credit card.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I didn't love my girlfriend. But the way she and other Japanese women show themselves so willing to take part in a meaningless bit of commercial exploitation gets to me. I was airing this opinion the other day to my sister, who shot back with her usual mantra: "Sonna kotojya kekkon dekinaiwayo (At this rate, you'll never get married)," followed by "Onnagokoro wo motto wakaranakucha (You need a deeper understanding of the woman's heart.)"

I told her that this onnagokoro (woman's heart) is nothing special and perpetually at the mercy of a handful of ad agencies, but she just grunted and went back to flipping through a puchi jyuwurii(petit jewelry and accessories) catalog she tells me is now replacing the counter at Tiffany's.

This year though, I'm single. I'm out of the White Day loop, except for a few obligatory handkerchiefs. No one has declared me their honmei and my credit card is secure. Should I be feeling thankful or depressed?

Kaori Shoji will return on April 3.


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