Ah, Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air, and in the West men become suitors walking through the aisles for gifts to impress their partners. Jackets are buttoned up, flowers are presented, and candles are lit for dinner. Japan, however, turned the tables on this tender holiday!
Before we get to the “what” that Japan does, let’s start with the “how” they adopted this lovey-dovey day. The origin of Valentine’s Day’s journey to the East is widely debated. Some argue that Japan, Morozoff Ltd. introduced the holiday for the first time in 1936 when it ran ads aimed at Western foreigners. In 1953, it began a campaign promoting heart-shaped chocolates. Soon after, Japanese confectionery crafters joined the bandwagon. However, Japan’s famous Isetan department store disagrees and argues that they were the first to kick off the holiday craze with their 1958 "Valentine Sale". As the Swingin’ 60s followed, more stores promoted the delicious custom.
Buying chocolates sounds pretty normal right? This is where Japan adds its own little twist: chocolate is the only gift on Valentine’s Day. Things like greeting cards, candies, flowers, or dinner dates aren’t offered and considered highly uncommon. Valentine’s Day is all about, truly only about, the chocolate. It’s no wonder Japanese chocolate companies make at least half their annual sales during this time of the year. This wild ride isn’t over yet! It’s rumored that there were translation errors when the Valentine’s Day campaigns came through customs. The result? In Japan, it’s the women who give men chocolates in Japan. Alright, re-combobulated? In particular, office ladies feel obliged to present chocolate to their male co-workers (except when the day falls on a Sunday). This is known as giri-choco (義理チョコ), from giri (obligation) and choco (chocolate). Unpopular co-workers receive "ultra-obligatory", or c hō-giri-choco cheap chocolate. For loved ones, honmei-choco (本命チョコ, true feeling chocolate) is specially prepared. Friends often exchange chocolate among themselves; this is referred to as tomo-choco (友チョコ, from tomo meaning "friend"). I know, ladies, this all sounds like a lot of work while the men play, but don’t worry as there’s more to this game.
As I just mentioned, the Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day in their own unique way. Women give chocolates to men. However, this wild ride doesn’t just end after one day. In the 1980s, the Japanese National Confectionery Industry Association successfully campaigned for March 14th to become a "reply day". Men are expected to repay the favor to those who gave them chocolates on Valentine's Day. The initial name was " Ai Ni Kotaeru White Day" (Answer Love on White Day) but is now shortened to “White Day”. The color white was chosen because it is a symbol of purity and evokes "pure, sweet teen love". It should be noted that a previous attempt to popularize this celebration was undertaken by a marshmallow manufacturer who wanted men to return marshmallows to women (It understandably failed).
Even better, men are expected to present gifts that are at least two or three times more valuable than the gifts they received a month ago. That includes both giri and honmei-choco! Not returning the gift is usually perceived as a (somewhat disdainful) reminder of the man’s position of superiority (no excuses, it’s still rude). For honmei-choco receivers, returning a present of equal value is seen as a way to say that the relationship is being cut. Originally, only chocolate was given (similar to Valentine’s Day), but now for those who received honmei-choco, the gifts of jewelry, accessories, clothing, and lingerie are common.
Chocolate isn’t the only way to confess love in Japanese culture.
Kokuhaku (告白), literally means "confession", and it is done when a person declares their love to the other in hopes of beginning a relationship with that person.You may go out with the person a few times or go out on a group date, but your relationship hasn't technically started until this love confession (AKA kokuhaku) occurs. Acceptance marks the start of a "serious" relationship. The idea of entering into this kind of relationship can be so overwhelming that sometimes people even "confess their love" before the first date. This is often followed by a bashful invitation to a romantic event. Saying “I love you” before saying hello for the first time is understandably a bit much in the West, but it is fairly common practice in Japan.
We’ve ridden this cultural roller coaster to incredible heights, and had ourselves an educational view. It’s fun to see the interesting and unique ways that Japanese people express their affections. Whether romantic or platonic, all relationships are shown gratitude and recognition. So next time when people ask, where’s the love? You can tell them, it’s all in Japan!
Have some people you want to show thanks to or love for? Check out our curated boxes filled with authentic Japanese snacks and teas to warm their hearts.
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