Similar to Christmas, Valentine’s Day is an example of a western holiday widely popularized and celebrated in Japan, but with some key departures from familiar western or American traditions. For example, unlike in the US where it is common for people to exchange chocolate, cards, flowers, and other gifts for Valentine’s Day, in Japan chocolate is almost exclusively the gift of choice. Furthermore, it is only the women who buy and bestow the chocolates on Valentine’s Day.
The promotion of Valentine’s Day in Japan began in the 1950s, primarily as a marketing tactic for Japanese chocolate companies, and was originally targeted to foreigners living in Japan. At the time there was quite a bit of interest in “westernization” and a keenness to adopt western traditions and customs, so as more and more companies began advertising Valentine’s Day chocolates, the more the holiday took off. Today, the holiday has become so popular that chocolate companies in Japan make nearly half of their annual sales in the time leading up to Valentine’s Day alone. The custom that only women give chocolates to men seems to be attributed to a translation error made by a chocolate company executive during the early advertising campaigns.
The tradition of chocolate gift-giving is far from simple, though. Girls give out different kinds of chocolates (in varying quality and price) depending on who the intended recipient is. First, there’s giri-choko or “obligatory chocolates,” which are chocolates that you have to or are expected to give to someone. These are commonly given to people like bosses, coworkers, or male friends, and tend to be fairly inexpensive. (There’s also chō-giri-choko or “ultra-obligatory chocolates” that are super cheap and reserved for unpopular coworkers.)Then there’s tomo-choko or “friend chocolates” that refers to chocolates a girl gives to her female friends. And finally, there’s honmei-choko or “true feelings chocolates.” These special chocolates are reserved for giving to the one you wish to express your love to, and tend to be very expensive or handmade. (Recently there’s been a story trending on Twitter about some rather…unexpected ingredients making their way into Japanese girls’ homemade chocolates. Click here if you’re interested, though I’d avoid doing so if you’re at all squeamish.)
With all of the varieties of Valentine’s Day chocolates and the often long list of recipients, gift-giving for this holiday is no joke. In fact, it’s not uncommon for women to spend upwards of $100 on Valentine’s Day chocolates.
Although the entire onus is on women for Valentine’s Day in Japan, men do have a day of reciprocation: exactly one month later on March 14th or “White Day.” This holiday was similarly manufactured by the candy industry and originally involved guys giving marshmallows to girls. The marshmallows were found to be rather underwhelming, so the preferred gift changed to chocolate, specifically white chocolate (in keeping with the color scheme). In addition to chocolates, men also purchase things like jewelry or clothing as gifts, and often the expectation is that the guy’s White Day gifts will be significantly more expensive than those given to them on Valentine’s Day.
This year’s Valentine’s Day is only a little over a week away, so I hope you’ve got your gifts and your list of giftees ready!