From Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) to Hadaka Matsuri (the Naked Festival), Japan has always been known to celebrate festivals and traditions in its own unique way. Therefore, it may not come as a surprise to you that the Japanese also have their own take on Valentine’s Day. In the rest of the world, lovers tend to exchange gifts on this day, with men sometimes making big romantic gestures. Not in Japan. Women typically give out chocolates, and the gesture is returned by men a month later, on White Day (14th March).
Giri-choco and Honmei-choco
Valentine’s Day is a complicated affair in Japan. Even if you did not have a romantic partner to think about, you may have to consider giving your male colleagues “giri-choco”. Literally meaning “obligatory chocolate”, giri-choco is usually inexpensive chocolate given to male co-workers as a sign of respect and appreciation. Although the idea of giri-choco may have started that way, its meaning has become lost over the years, as women saw giving out giri-choco as – surprisingly – obligatory, and just something they did in order not to offend their male colleagues. As such, some companies have decided to take matters into their own hands. In recent years, giri-choco has started to be banned in offices across Japan.
For those who do have a partner or a crush, though, fear not, as there remains “honmei-choco” (true love chocolate). These are lavish, luxurious chocolates that are given out to romantic interests, whether they be a current partner or a crush. Although it is common for these chocolates to be homemade, many chocolatiers and confectionery stores also capitalise on this opportunity, laying out rows upon rows of beautiful, extravagant chocolates and gift boxes on display. And finally – there’s something for everyone. “Tomo-choco”, friend chocolates, are given out among friends as a sign of friendship.
Commercialisation of Valentine’s Day
Given the huge confectionery market in Japan, you may not be surprised to find that Valentine’s Day is a highly commercialised event. After all, White Day was first created as a marketing campaign by Ishimura Manseido, the company that introduced the idea that their marshmallow sweets would be a great return present for Valentine’s Day. In 2018, Nestlé launched the world’s first ruby chocolate Kit-Kat in late January and early February, just ahead of Valentine’s season in Japan. Heart-shaped chocolate moulds and boxes and gift bags strewn with little hearts also fill the shelves in supermarkets and 100-yen shops, to make that classic aesthetically pleasing Japanese style of packaging that we have all come to love.
An Inclusive Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day can feel very exclusive. In Japan, where half a million people are hikikomori (modern hermits) and many find themselves lonely, this can feel especially prominent. Some people have taken it even further, with a group called the Kakumeiteki Himote Doumei (loosely translated, meaning the Revolutionary Alliance of Unpopular Men) taking it onto the streets every year. With large banners, they protest on the street against the capitalism of romance.
On the other hand, there are those who feel that Valentine’s Day does not apply to them at all, given the heteronormative nature of the event in Japan. For the LGBTQ community, the one-sidedness of Valentine’s Day and White Day is deeply entrenched in the social norms that have remained conservative over the years. Such celebrations are often done in secret, if at all, with their own take on the event.
Perhaps in the future, we will be able to move towards a more inclusive day where we celebrate love not just for romantic partners, but for families, friends, and all the important people in our lives. But for now, Valentine’s day is here to stay. What will you be doing this Valentine’s?