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Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006


Unwrapping the 'nonsense' of Valentine's Day

Even as the season of love and romance descends upon us in all its hues of gooey cherry-reds and electrifying pinks, a great number of Japanese women remain . . . shira-keteru (frigidly sober).

In some cases, they're even outright grim. Take 36-year-old Midori, who has recently registered at a Kekkon Sodanjyo (a marriage-consultation center, an institution that specializes in computerized matchmaking, relationship nurturing and premarriage counseling) reputed to have sent more than 60,000 happy couples to the altar.

"Shikatanai-yo (it can't be helped)" says Midori, whose last relationship had ended when she was 29, and who has since then been living for nomikai (drinking parties), kaimono (shopping) and ryoko (vacations) -- the three pillars that support the often fragile equilibrium of the Japanese female professional. "I wasn't meeting any eligible men on the job and at my age, it's stupid to waste time. I want to get married and have a baby within the next 18 months with minimum fuss. I just don't have time for Valentine's Day nonsense."

Midori cites the months between December and February as the worst in the Japanese calendar: Christmas, the yearend holidays, and now Valentine's Day all spike the air with cloying suggestions of romance, sexy lingerie and cocktails at some luxury hotel bar.

Obligation chocolates

Midori lit up her Pianissimo cigarette (less smoke, practically zero nicotine, apparently) and muttered: "Mattakusa, doshirotte yunoyo. Watashitachiwa Burapi to Angelina jya nainoyo! (For goodness sake, what do they want us to do? After all, we're not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie!)"

And who can blame her for sounding a little bitter when she and other partnerless women must navigate the barren, rocky terrain of the dating scene? Midori adds wistfully: "Barentain nante, koko nannenmo giri choco shika kattakotonai! (For many years, I've never bought anything but obligation chocolates for Valentine's)."

Ah, the obligation chocolates. Dreamed up by some genius marketeer who convinced women that not only do they have to present chocolates to their beloved (honmei) in order to express their emotions, but also to their bosses, co-workers, the guy down the hall who once fixed the photocopier at 2 a.m. . . . if only to demonstrate that one is a kind, considerate woman.

Now a must-buy fixture on the Japanese seasonal consumption map, this giri-choco comprises a market that sings to the tune of something like 30 billion yen, spawning an entire industry of impeccably polite, elaborately wrapped packets of chocolates. But there you go: obligation is nothing but, and as any Japanese woman will tell you -- buying a hundred boxes of giri-choco only heightens the misery when there's no one out there to whom they can give the real thing.

Kimi, who has just turned 34 after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, declares that for clear-sighted women in their 30s, all the fun has gone out of Valentine's. "Honmei choco wo ageruni ataisuru otoko wa inai (there are no men out there who deserve honmei chocolate)."

Work before love

Kimi's theory is that unattached men over 30 are plainly incapable of providing an ambience of romance. Kimi's ex had thought nothing of skipping birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine's; he was the typical, work-comes-before-all salaryman who routinely came home after midnight and went straight to sleep. Kimi had broached the subject of marriage and her boyfriend's reply had been: "Isogashikute kangaerarenai (too busy to even think about it)." Kimi's dream now is to find someone to spend all the holidays with and to whom she can present a luscious chocolate gateau made with her own hands -- on Valentine's Day. To this end, she's thinking of moving to Australia.

There are some happy Valentine's Day stories out there. My favorite is the one that happened between my cousin and her husband, just before they started dating. Shigeru was crazy about my cousin but didn't know how to tell her, and instead of being subtle about it, he timed his confession two months before Valentine's Day. "Honmei choco wo kudasai! (please give me honmei chocolate)" were his words, at which my cousin laughed, thinking it some misguided joke. But he kept repeating that one sentence, accompanying it with invitations to concerts, dinners, an occasional flower bouquet. Every time Shigeru took her out, he trotted out that line. And come Feb. 14 . . . you know the rest.

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