As with many other things—train travel, hot springs, and baseball, to name just a few—you’ve never seen Valentine’s Day done quite like it’s done in Japan. The stores are decked out with hearts and teddy bears and red and white ribbons galore, of course, but that’s just the beginning. Here you can choose from a seemingly endless variety of gifts for your sweetheart: vacations, dinners, and cruises around Tokyo Bay for the conventional, but also, for the more adventurous, short skits at theme parks, where you can pretend to beat up punks hitting on your girlfriend. There’s even an additional protocol here: The women give chocolates to the men on February 14, with the men reciprocating one month later, on “White Day,” with return gifts of their own (originally white chocolates). Distinguishing between the two types of chocolates women give—“real-love chocolate” and “chocolate of social obligation”—adds another layer of stress and fluster to a holiday already short-circuited worldwide by mushy sentimentality and awkwardness.
The global ubiquity of Valentine’s Day, coupled with the fact that Japan has raised celebration of the holiday to an art, can lead us to forget how thoroughly artificial and unnatural all of this is. Men taking their sweethearts to the observation deck atop Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Skytree for the purpose of dropping on one knee and proposing may be charming, but it is utterly at odds with how love has traditionally been expressed here. Valentine’s Day is an occasion for lovey-doviness everywhere, but in Japan the schmaltz is particularly jarring.
After the Heian Period, when effete literati composed tear-stained poems to their mistresses after leaving by oxcart in the predawn, Japan entered a long period of civil war, during which it became a martial society dominated by warlords. Their retainers, the samurai, were not exactly troubadours, and pouring one’s heart out to the opposite sex, while perhaps tolerable among poets and fools, was not at all how men here were expected to act.
Until fairly recently a kind of manly reticence remained the ideal. In the second half of the twentieth century, most Japanese husbands and fathers were what is known as “Shōwa otoko,” loosely translated as “1950s men”—the generation that stoically endured the horrors of war, then picked up the pieces and worked seven days a week for forty years to rebuild the country after defeat. Gruff, reserved, un-silly—the Shōwa otoko was the very opposite of the emotional Valentine’s Day stereotype promoted by media and advertisers here today. When a Shōwa otoko wanted to marry someone, he might never even say so—for many women, the only “proposal” they received was when their beau said, “Follow me,” meaning for life. (To say “for life” would have been considered too emotional.)
Most readers by now will have heard that birthrates in Japan are very low (although many of the more apocalyptic predictions are exaggerated). To my mind, there is no small degree of symmetry between the rise of the mush-man—the Valentine’s Day version of masculinity—and the decline of the Japanese population. Japanese women often mock men who waste their lives in dead-end part-time jobs, using their earnings on video games and comic books. “Herbivores” (sōshoku) is how such softies are referred to by their female counterparts. The term is not meant to be a compliment. Who would want to marry someone who is perhaps good at telling you how he feels (once he has managed to power down the Xbox), but unable to put food on the table or a roof over your head?
The asexual revolution—the latest turn in the sexual revolution’s slow-motion dismantling of our fundamental humanity—is highly advanced in Japan. I can’t help but think that this is because the best things are susceptible to the worst corruption. In the past Japanese men were often lampooned as wooden work-machines, but the reality was quite different. Although infidelity and other sinful failings are as common in Japan as anywhere else, the Shōwa otoko I have known in my life have all been dedicated family men, rising early and working late, but delighting in nothing so much as being at home surrounded by their children, grandchildren—and, yes, their wives.
In a rare moment of confession, a Shōwa otoko I knew for many years once paused during a late-evening conversation when the topic turned to marriage. Offering (the much younger) me advice on entering into the institution, he took a sheet of notepaper from beside the telephone and drew two overlapping circles. “This one’s me,” he said, drawing the first circle. “And this one’s her,” he said as he drew the second. “That’s the ideal.” I’m sure he never told “her” that he felt that way, but after four decades of turning over every single paycheck to his wife, I’m also sure that she already knew. He gave his life to his spouse—a lot harder, it must be admitted, than giving someone a ring. I learned a lot from that Shōwa otoko that I never would have learned from watching Love, Actually.
This Valentine’s Day, as we again confront the long-legged lie that all men are part of an oppressive “patriarchy” and that “toxic masculinity” is ruining everyone’s life, let’s think a bit about the Shōwa otoko, a standard bearer for patriarchy and toxic masculinity if ever there was one. Duty, honor, sacrifice—the Shōwa otoko wasn’t into chocolates and roses, but what he gave was worth much more.