Asia has a bit of a love-hate relationship with Valentine's Day. While some countries have embraced the western holiday — even putting their own unique twists on it — others are less enamoured with the concept. We take a look at what February 14 means throughout Asia.
Instead of reciprocal gift giving, on February 14 the onus is on Japanese women to show appreciation to the men in their lives – usually in the form of chocolate. There are two main types of Valentine's Day chocolates. One is giri choco, literally “obligation chocolate”, which is given to platonic male acquaintances like friends and colleagues. The other is honmei choco, or “true feelings chocolate”, which is reserved for an actual love interest.
How can a recipient tell the difference? Giri choco tend to be more affordable varieties, while honmei choco is immediately distinguishable by its high-end brand name and fancy packaging. Some women even prefer to make their own honmei choco, as they believe handmade chocolates are more heartfelt.
The tables are turned one month later, when “White Day” takes place. On March 14, men who received chocolates on Valentine’s Day are expected to return the favour. The story goes that the celebration was invented in the 1970s by a small confectionery shop which encouraged men to buy marshmallows for their sweethearts. It was originally dubed “Marshmallow Day,” but was later renamed “White Day” to encompass all things sugary.
And if you don't receive anything? In recent years, a third category of Valentine's Day chocolate has also become popular – jibun choco, or “myself chocolate”.
South Koreans celebrate in the same way as Japan, with both Valentine’s Day and White Day. But there is also a third day – Black Day. Celebrated on April 14, this unofficial holiday is a day for singles to get together, dress in sombre colours, and drown their sorrows in big bowls of jajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce). Some restaurants even host jajangmyeon eating contests on this day.
There are several dates dedicated to romance on the Chinese calendar. The last day of Lunar New Year celebrations – the Lantern Festival, which is marked on the 15th day of the first lunar month (and sometimes coincides with February 14) – is considered the closest equivalent to Valentine’s Day. In ancient times, the Lantern Festival was the one occasion when a nighttime curfew was lifted, so people could stay outside and admire the lanterns. This meant it was a good time for singles to meet potential partners.
May 20 is another important date for Chinese people, as the pronunciation for “five two zero” sounds like “I love you”. This presents an excellent social media opportunity for couples to share photos of themselves, usually with the hashtag #520. Not surprisingly, it’s also a popular day for weddings.
Then there’s the Qixi Festival, also known as the Double Seventh Festival, which takes place on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (usually August). This festival, which has been celebrated since the Han dynasty, is centred around a love story called “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”.
Of course, there’s also Singles’ Day on November 11 – also known as the world’s biggest online shopping event. You can read more about that here.
Valentine’s Day is popular among teenagers in Cambodia, despite criticism from the government that the holiday goes against “Khmer values”. The country’s Ministry of Education issues an annual Valentine’s Day warning, reminding young people that the holiday should not be used as an excuse to engage in sexual activity. The day has also highlighted the issue of sexual consent in Cambodia.
Valentine’s Day is a relatively new holiday in India, and its arrival has not been without controversy. Some right wing groups have taken action against the day, staging protests both on the streets and online. In recent years, Hindu nationalist party Hindu Mahasabha has made headlines for its plans to “marry off” young couples who "demonstrate affection in public places" on Valentine's Day.
Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, is no great fan of Valentine’s Day, with several cities banning Valentine’s Day celebrations. But unofficially, many Indonesians seem to enjoy aspects of the holiday, with local e-commerce platform Tokopedia reporting a 650 per cent increase in chocolate sales and a 250 per cent increase in flower sales ahead of the day. This year, national airline Garuda is even putting on a special inflight Valentine's Day concert for the occasion.
Valentine’s Day has grown in popularity among Pakistanis in recent years, much to the dismay of former President Mamnoon Hussain, who in 2016 urged the nation to abstain from celebrations, stating the holiday has "no connection with our culture". For the last two years, the Islamabad High Court has prohibited Valentine’s Day festivities in government offices and public spaces in the capital, while the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority banned TV channels and radio stations from broadcasting programming related to the holiday.
In North Korea, February 14 marks the date in 2012 that late leader Kim Jong-il was posthumously awarded the title of taewonsu (generalissimo), the country’s highest possible military rank. Just two days later is another public holiday, the Day of the Shining Star, which marks Kim Jong-il’s birth date and is celebrated in the capital of Pyongyang with mass gymnastics, military demonstrations, and fireworks.
- Asia Media Centre