There’s something in the Japanese air when February rolls around, I'm not talking about hay fever! It's romance: supermarkets and departments adorn displays of red, pink and white which groan under the weight of chocolate and baking equipment. It's Valentine’s Day in Japan!
Yep, Valentine’s Day is a big deal here, perhaps even more so than other countries: it's estimated to be the third most lucrative event for Japanese business after Christmas and Halloween. And like those two holidays, while the core meaning of the day remains the same (expressing love to another) it has been remixed for the Japanese market.
For one, the giving of chocolate is very much front and center of the Japanese customs for Valentine's Day. And it's not an exchange of sweet treats really: it's all about women giving to men. Wait, it's not as unfair as it seems! More on that later.
For Japanese women, giving chocolate on Valentine's Day is not just about their loved ones but also to any man in their life. It's multi-layered: for male co-workers and friends ‘義理チョコ’ (Giri-Choko) is given. ‘Giri’ means ‘Obligation’ and despite the oppressive sounding name it is largely seen in a positive light, as a way to generally say thanks and do something nice for friends and colleagues. Giri-Choko is typically inexpensive and pre-packaged chocolate.
The main event is ‘本命チョコ’ (Honmei Choko). ‘Honmei’ roughly translates as ‘favorite’ or ‘heart’s true desire’ and it is a more elaborate, thoughtful dessert delight that is given to that special someone: a boyfriend or husband for example. Women often go through the effort of making their own handmade chocolates, feeling that the extra effort and personal touch is a better expression of love than premade chocolates.
In recent years, businesses looking to squeeze a few extra yen out of Valentine’s Day have tried introducing yet more layers to the types of chocolate exchanged. There's ‘友チョコ’ (Tomo Choko), which is chocolate you gift to friends of the same gender, and ‘ご褒チョコ’ (Gohoubi Choko), which is chocolate you gift to yourself as a well earned treat.
If this all seems massively unfair, fear not ladies! Exactly one month after Valentine's Day (March 14th), Japan observes an event known as ‘White Day’. This is when the roles are reversed and men are expected to give chocolate back to the women. In fact, the rule of thumb is to give back to the women who gifted you Valentine’s sweets with three times as much value. Not such a bad deal after all!
If the Japanese Valentine’s Day seems like nothing but an assault on your sugar intake, don't worry: the concept of ‘date night’ very much exists in Japan, and Valentine’s Day is an auspicious time to go out on such a date. Handily, many of those elaborate illuminations that are put up for Christmas have hung around, albeit with some small tweaks in the theming to switch from festive to romantic. These areas are hotspots for couples after their restaurant meals, along with classic date spots. If you're in and around Tokyo, places like Odaiba, Omotesando and the Minatomirai of Yokohama will be packed out with pairs courting one another. Kichijouji, in the west of Tokyo, is another popular neighborhood, but whatever you do don't take your other half out on Inokashira Lake! The urban legend goes that couples who ride a swan boat on that lake are destined to break up.
It's always fascinating to see how Japan takes western holidays and events and makes them their own, and Valentine’s Day is no exception. So if you're in Japan and you get a stack of chocolate on February 14th (or March 14th), be careful of jumping to conclusions: it might be just giri-choko!