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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Japan: Valentine's Day

February. The month of love. Though the air may be chilly, hearts are warm with affection. Couples search for the perfect tokens of affection and plan romantic getaways. Couples-to-be are nervous about having the perfect date. Cinemas play romantic movies and it seems the world is colored in red.

In my continuing series, I look at Valentine's day in Japan. The holiday came to the country in 1936, when a company ran ads targeting foreigners. Giving heart-shaped chocolate was introduced the '50s and the holiday gained in popularity in the 1960s.

No one is quite sure what caused the custom to diverge from the American version. Some say it was a translation error. But whatever happened, on Valentine's Day only women give chocolate to men. And not just any chocolate will do, or the same to chocolate to everyone. It can be divided into four main classes: favorite chocolate (honmei-choko (本命チョコ), friend chocolate (tomo-choko (友チョコ), obligation chocolate giri-choko (義理チョコ), and ultra obligation chocolate (chō-giri choko). Honmei-choko is given to loved ones, mostly husbands and boyfriends. Tomo-choko is given by girls to their female friends. This custom is fairly recent and is gaining popularity. Giri-choko is given by women to their male co-workers. This can be school staff, office workers, and so on. Whatever job it is they work at. Chou-giri-choko is cheap chocolate given to unpopular male co-workers.

Unlike America, giving greeting cards, candy, flowers, and other such gifts is uncommon. The main thought driving the giving of chocolate is giving the right amount to each person. Many women make chocolate for honmei-choko. The major companies, like Meiji and Ghana, set up huge displays of their chocolate bars. At these colorful kiosks, everything you need to make chocolate is there, as well as all the decorations; like silver balls, white sprinkles, sugar, and more. You can make it as a simple as a heart-shaped piece of chocolate or so glittery and sparkly it looks like it should belong in a jewelry store in Shibuya.

Chocolate companies make nearly half their sales during this time of year. Most large department stores, like Parco and Sogo, have basement floors dedicated to food stalls. In February these places come a chocolate paradise, with different companies displaying their goods in glass display cases. Prices range from cheap to expensive, depending on the company and the design of the chocolates.

Romantic date nights aren't common on this day. Those are usually reserved for Christmas Eve. But it is the time to express your love. If you've had a crush on that boy in school, now is the time to tell him. Want to confess to the new male staff member? Upgrade to the highest quality giro-choco, or better yet, make it yourself.

"What about the men?" you ask. "Are they off the hook?" Not by a long shot. They have their own holiday, White Day, and I will talk about that next month.


  1. I love it! Thank you for sharing a piece of Japanese culture.

  2. Nice post, Cody. See you on March 14th for White Day!