Originally a celebration date in the Christian calendar, St Valentine’s Day has become rather commercial in the West but nonetheless a time when we celebrate love, romance, friendship and affection.
On 14th February each year, we might exchange, often anonymously, cards and small tokens of affection with someone we love or would like to get to know better. Some might even organise extravagant displays of passionate love or give more expensive gifts and confectionary. The more cynical scoff at the over inflated price of flowers and chocolates and complain about not being able to book a table at their favourite restaurant!
In Japan, however, Valentine’s Day has taken on its own set of customs and is quite different in many ways to how we Europeans and Americans traditionally celebrate.
How do Japanese people celebrate Valentine’s Day?
In Japan the custom is for girls and women to give chocolates to someone they like and respect. There doesn’t always have to be a romantic connection and several different types of giving have developed.
The first type known as ‘giri-choco’ has become somewhat controversial because of the feelings of obligation surrounding it. These small chocolate gifts are given by women to male friends and family members where, rather than romantic feelings, the giver wants to convey gratitude and respect. They tend to be less fancy, shop bought chocolates that don’t cost too much.
However, the custom developed to include work colleagues and bosses and, although this should be something that people only participate in if they wish to, some women have complained about an expectation that they should give gifts in this way. Unsurprisingly, it’s not good if employees feel pressure to take part, especially as it could end up costing a good deal if one person feels they have to buy many gifts and as a result some companies have banned the practice in an effort to improve the company culture.
In a more conventional and romantic way, ‘honmei-choco’ are chocolate gifts given to your ‘significant other’. This could be your husband, boyfriend, lover or someone that you would like to have a romantic relationship with. These confections are often more expensive, perhaps handmade, artisan or even homemade by the giver.
This all sounds lovely except that sometimes a man might only accept honmei-choco from someone that he is also interested in becoming romantically involved with. Can you imagine being the girl whose gift is refused!
You’re on much safer ground with ‘tomo-choco’. ‘Tomodachi’ is the Japanese word for ‘friend’ and these have become pretty chocolate gifts exchanged between female friends. I guess the Japanese were doing 'Galentines' before anyone else!
Finally, when all else seems tiresome you could go for ‘jibun-choco’. A well-deserved fancy chocolate treat you buy to enjoy yourself.
How did this start?
As with so many celebrations that have become ‘traditions’, Valentine’s Day became popular in Japan in the 1930s because confectionary manufacturers, who had already been marketing Valentine’s Day products to foreign visitors, saw an opportunity to market to locals. They were cleverly able to turn a novelty product into a way for women to express their feelings towards the men in their lives, something that was taboo at the time.
As the idea became popular, more and more gift products became available and shops and department stores created elaborate and enticing displays to encourage shoppers in and to spend their money.
Today Valentine’s Day is very popular in Japan and, as well as great displays of ready made chocolate gifts, the shops are packed with supplies and gift wrap for creating your own.
What about the guys?
Finally, you can’t write about Valentine’s Day in Japan without at least mentioning White Day which comes one month later on 14 March.
The tradition on White Day is for men who received gifts on Valentine’s Day to return the favour, sending chocolates and other gifts to those who gave the original chocolates.
Of course, being Japan this is a simplification of what goes on and White Day has another set of rules and customs to adhere to. But that's one for another blog, I think!