White Day and Reciprocal Gift Giving in Japan

St. Valentine’s Day in Japan, known for its wide variety of high-quality boxed chocolates, has expanded on the western version of the holiday to include even more gift-giving options. With names that reflect the custom of giving chocolate as the standard gift, you can choose from “friend chocolate” (ともチョコ), which is exchanged among friends with no romantic expectations; “duty chocolate” (義理ぎりチョコ), which is given to coworkers and superiors to show appreciation for their daily efforts; “papa-chocolate” (パパチョコ) and “grandpa chocolate” (じじチョコ), given to fathers and grandfathers; and the all-time classic, “true-love chocolate” (本命ほんめいチョコ). But the gift-giving opportunities do not stop there. Once you have received a box of sweets or any other present, you will need to be aware of the paired “White Day” holiday and the Japanese concept of okaeshi (おかえし), the practice of reciprocal gift-giving.

People in Japan love giving and receiving gifts, and what culture doesn’t? Gifts are given for the celebratory occasions you would normally expect, such as weddings or the birth of a child. But the practice also extends to things like finishing construction of a new house, opening a new business, starting your first job, saying farewell to those moving away, and even hospital visits and funerals. When you receive a gift for such an occasion, you will be expected to give a gift in return, the okaeshi.

Before you choose your okaeshi gift, you need to find out the approximate value of the present you received. This is easy when the gift is cash, but a quick internet search can usually help with other types of presents. The amount you spend on the reciprocal gift is a complex matter that involves balancing the value of the gift received, the occasion, and the ages and social relationship between the giver and the receiver. People often give back something that is one-third to one-half the value of the original gift, but this varies greatly and has such intricate rules of etiquette that many Japanese people end up consulting someone before making their purchases. A general guideline to follow when in doubt is to give a gift that is roughly half the value of the one you received.

The gifts can be household items such as linens and dishes, food staples like cooking oil, sugar, or tea, canned juice, sweets, or even laundry soap. Things that are to be used in the home or consumed are more common than personal items. You can find suitable gifts arranged beautifully in boxes at any department store. They will usually wrap the item free of charge, and if you know the address, they can arrange for shipping right from the store.

Graduation gifts and children’s New Year’s gifts do not need okaeshi because they are given to children. In the case of birthday gifts, you just give the giver a present on his or her birthday in return. If you receive a souvenir, you can give a souvenir in return later whenever you happen to go somewhere. For homegrown vegetables or something handmade from a neighbor, you can give an item from your garden or your oven, or share some sweets that you got from someone else—it’s OK to share. Almost anything that can be considered a gift needs an okaeshi. Even when young adults get their first full-time job, they are expected to give a kind of okaeshi to their parents from their first paycheck to symbolically thank them for raising them!

It should seem natural that you would need a reciprocal gift for a Valentine’s Day present. White Day, celebrated each year on March 14, is a convenient chance and reminder to offer something in return. As the holiday approaches, stores fill up with beautifully boxed sweets just for this purpose. White chocolate and marshmallows were popular in the early days of the holiday, but now any type of sweets is fine, as well as small personal items such as handkerchiefs and accessories.

There are rules of etiquette surrounding the return Valentine’s gift, but those rules are a lot easier for White Day. The trickiest part is determining which type of Valentine’s gift you were given. Was it “friend chocolate,” “duty chocolate,” or perhaps even “true-love chocolate”? Friends often exchange small packets of sweets, sometimes handmade, on Valentine’s Day. If you have done an exchange, then you will not normally need to give a White Day gift as well. If you received your chocolate at work, then it is most likely “duty chocolate,” traditionally passed out by female employees to their male coworkers and bosses (although this is changing) to show appreciation for their daily efforts. These gifts could be as inexpensive as a ¥100 candy bar. If the gift you got was very small, then the White Day gift you give in return should be of approximately the same value, and can even be higher if you wish to show your thanks for their consideration. Bosses and managers tend to give higher valued White Day gifts to their subordinates than do coworkers of equal rank.

If you got something from a student, be sure to check your school’s policy before giving a White Day gift—or before accepting a Valentine’s Day gift. Fathers and grandfathers usually give reciprocal gifts of much higher value to their daughters or granddaughters. And that leaves us with true-love chocolate. If you have interpreted the signs correctly and it is indeed in the true-love category—and if you are inclined to requite the sentiment—then your return gift should be many, many times the value of what you received!

Be sure to keep this okaeshi system in mind when you receive Valentine’s Day chocolate or any other gift in Japan, and have a great White Day!

[Image Credits: cheetah/photo-ac.com]

Jeanette May Fukao

Jeanette May Fukao is an artist, poet, writer, and translator living in Shiga, Japan. Her paintings and poems depict microcosms of nature and life in Japan. She has lived here since the 1980s, and has a deep understanding of the culture.

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