In February, it’s hard to miss the chocolate-covered excitement of Valentine’s Day. In supermarkets and department stores all across the country the racks and aisles explode in red, white and pink manifestations of love. On the surface it looks like your typical Valentine’s Day in any number of countries around the world.
Photo: ilaria on Flickr
But as with much of the things of Japan, there is much beneath the surface to explore and understand. So it is worth taking a look at the customs and social guidelines that make up the phenomenon of Valentine’s Day in the Land of the Rising Sun.
A Little Bit of History
It is widely accepted that the whole Valentine’s Day craze in Japan began in 1936 when the confectionary company Mozoroff began an advertising campaign targeting foreigners. Over the next thirty years as Westerners in Japan carried on their amorous traditions the idea of giving chocolate to others on February 14th became common among many Japanese as well.
Photo: little*star on Flickr
Interestingly, it was very early when the evolution of the holiday veered of the traditional Western path. A small error in the translation of a Mozoroff ad led to the noticeable and unique Japanese custom of the women giving chocolates to the men who, for a while were under no social obligation to reciprocate. Rather than correct the “error” the women – and, it can be assumed, the men – decided to continue the ways of the holiday without causing a fuss.
The Chocolate Caste System
Public displays of affection are uncommon in Japan, and the opprobrium extends to the giving of valentine chocolate. Unlike in the West, in Japan the offering of sugary tokens follows a set of (perhaps) unwritten rules that explains just who should give what to whom. For better or for worse, this takes away from the sticky matter of attaching undue emotional significance to anyone’s involvement in the day.
Photo: C.P.Storm on Flickr
On Valentine’s Day in Japan the mark of true love is known as hon-mei. Traditionally hand-made and wrapped with the precision of a neurosurgeon, this highest form of chocolate in the land is reserved for a woman’s (we assume) one true love. Slowly and predictably the custom turned commercial, and now many women will buy expensive and elaborately-wrapped store-bought chocolate as hon-mei. To the relief of countless women and the delight of many a confectioner, this change in chocolate-giving has not been met with any resistance by the male population.
Beyond the custom of hon-mei, the women in any given office environment are expected to give Valentine’s Day chocolate to all their male co-workers in a specified desk-radius. To prevent the men from unduly appreciating any such gesture of kindness, a term has been created for this Valentine’s Day offering: giri-choco, or ‘obligation chocolate’.
It is rumored that there are guidelines for the amount of chocolate that should be given to each male co-worker although nothing definitive has been discovered. In contrast, to differentiate between classes of office relationships the term cho-giri-choco – ‘ultra-obligatory chocolate’ – was introduced. Receivers of this lower-tier sign of appreciation are thus left to ponder the clear indication of their status while they munch on their candied consolation prizes.
Acts of Chocolate Revolution
Over recent years males in Japan have begun to give their favorite females hon-mei chocolates and other tokens of affection. In the interest of maintaining order in the landscape of love the term gyaku-choco, or reverse chocolate, was introduced.
Photo: garycycles on Flickr
Similarly, teenage girls have also recently begun testing the acceptable limits by swapping sweets and treats with their female schoolmates. This too was met with the coining of a name for such platonic expression: tomo-choco, or ‘friend chocolate’.
Photo: Raymond Bryson on Flickr
Most recently the concept of eco-choco has arisen, in an effort to inject a sense of environmental responsibility into the otherwise passionate fires of Valentine’s Day. Eco-choco is just like regular choco but comes with half the packaging, ribbons and stickers with mostly-literate English terms of endearment.
The Equal Chocolate Rights Amendment
For years Japanese men reveled in the lack of social expectation of any sort of Valentine’s Day payback. But then the National Confectionery Industry Association succeeded in instituting ‘White Day’, a time for men to pay back all the pure, heartfelt generosity shown to them by all the women in their office.
Photo: Robert Sanzalone on Flickr
Now every year on March 14th men dutifully fulfill their heart-shaped responsibilities by reciprocating on every hon-mei, giri-choco and cho-giri-choco they received. To make the occasion extra special the industry has created the term ‘sanbai-gaeshi’, or ‘three times the return’. With this the men are obliged to spend three times what the women spent, in a show of reliable Japanese-style gratitude.
Love, In Conclusion
To the casually observant foreigner all these rules for expressing one’s love, affection and appreciation may seem to run counter to the nature of such emotions.
Photo: Pete on Flickr
But it is all a part of preserving the Wa. Besides, once the chocolates have all been properly exchanged and the powdered sugar settles, Japan’s wind-swept lovers do allow themselves to share in the passion – every year, on society’s self-administered day of consummation: Christmas Eve.