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Valentine's Day in Japan

JAPAN | Sunday, 21 February 2016 | Views [190]

Likes several other western holidays, Valentine’s Day is celebrated differently in Japan. To get a rough idea, imagine that you’ve never lived in America, but have seen Valentine’s Day in movies and commercials (a lot of movies and commercials) and think that it looks like fun. Now imagine you bond with a group of like-minded individuals and decide that you’ll start celebrating Valentine’s Day. Now imagine that this is not a small group of close friends, but an entire country. So, even though there are people who are aware that they’re celebrating Valentine’s Day differently, they don’t really care and just proceed with their own interpretation.

The biggest difference between Valentine’s Day in Japan and the United States is that in Japan, it is almost exclusively female to male. I’m not sure what same-sex couples do, and I think that same-sex friendships are still mostly ignored on the 14, but if you’re female, you’ll probably be giving away a lot of chocolate. If you’re male, you’ll be receiving it.

This is not as unequal as it might sound because one month later, the roles are reversed. 14 March is “White Day,” a day where guys need to return the favor. Personally, I think there are some advantages to this, as it can avoid a messy prisoner’s-dilemma situation. (It was also a pretty brilliant move on the part of the chocolate companies.)

The next most important thing you need to know about Valentine’s Day in Japan is that it’s all about chocolate. Not flowers and cards and books and candlelit dinners, or however Valentine's Day is celebrated in the United States. (I’m aware that books are not a traditional Valentine’s Day gift, but they should be. Flowers die, chocolate gets eaten, but a copy of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is forever. Until you finish the first chapter.) But no. In Japan, it is chocolate and nothing but.

Also, Valentine’s Day chocolate is not created equal. For one thing, it’s pretty common for girls to make chocolate, especially for their boyfriends. I’m not quite sure how one goes about making chocolate, (this is probably correlated to me not having ever had a Japanese boyfriend) but that’s definitely a thing that people do.

Of course, if you’re too busy or lazy or bad at cooking to make chocolate, you can definitely buy it at any konbini or Super that you want. Note: you should not just go to your normal chocolate-buying section of the store. Though they will have chocolate, it will not be Valentine's Day Chocolate. That is in a special section, probably right by the entrance or by the checkout. Or both. This is to make sure you don’t do something foolish like get your boyfriend a box of dark chocolate raspberry Melty Kiss. Because that’s probably going to be too subtle.

Actually, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re buying chocolate or making it yourself. What matters is what kind of chocolate you’re giving. Is it “giri choco,” “honmei choco,” “tomo choco,” or “jibun choco?”

“Tomo choco,” coming from the Japanese word “tomodachi,” for friend, is a relatively recent thing, usually given between two females to contrast it with “giri choco.” However, that opens you up to aforementioned prisoner's dilemma scenario. It’s also more common among younger girls, probably pre-university.

“Giri choco” literally means “obligation chocolate,” though the word “giri” is a very Japanese word, and requires a decent understanding of Japanese culture to be able to get it. So for the sake of simplicity and humor, I will continue to translate it as “obligation chocolate,” and describe my sister-in-law as my “obligation sister.” Anyway, giri choco is chocolate that females give to basically any male they aren’t romantically interested in. Male bosses, male coworkers, male friends, etc. Think back to when you or your child were in elementary school and needed to give candy to the entire class. Basically that kind of chocolate. If you really don’t like the person, you’ll give them especially cheap chocolate. If they’re a good friend, you might get them decent, but still inexpensive, chocolate. (Like a Melty Kiss.)

“Honmei choco” is the kind you’d get your boyfriend. Probably it would be a traditional heart-shaped box of specialty chocolates or something like that. For obvious reasons, it’s a lot more expensive than giri choco.

Finally, there is “jibun choco,” or self-chocolate. This is the chocolate that you buy yourself, and is the most expensive kind. As it should be.

If you’re male, then you might enjoy your chocolates now, but know that in exactly one month, you need to reciprocate. Regardless of how little you like the girl who bought you chocolate, you need to buy her something back. And it needs to be more expensive than what she bought you. Merely reciprocating with something of equal value is seen as a grave insult.

The moral of all this? The next time you wonder if Valentine’s Day can get any more commercial, look west. Valentine’s Day is not a popular date night in Japan, and it has no religious or historical significance. It is literally a day to help chocolate companies turn a tidy profit. Hallmark wishes it was as good as Japanese companies at marketing holidays.

Tags: chocolate, holidays, valentines day

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