When I first started studying Japanese over 20 years ago, I learned how all the holidays are celebrated in Japanese style. I remember being fascinated by how the Japanese people celebrate Valentine’s Day. Women have all the power!
Women give men presents (mostly chocolate, but also candy and flowers). Because Japanese women were once considered “too shy” to show their love, it gives them the chance to comfortably express their affections. Men have their chance to return the gifts to women on White Day, which is celebrated on March 14th.
Because the Japanese are so polite and do not want to offend anyone, Japanese women often give gifts of chocolate called “giri-choko” or “obligation chocolates.” These confections are given to bosses, male friends, and male colleagues.
Then there are the chocolates given out to men that Japanese women really don’t want to give chocolates to, called “cho-giri-choco” or “ultra obligation chocolates.” Imagine being the lucky recipient of that kind of chocolate?
When chocolates are given to a love interest or a special man, these are called “honmei-choko” or “prospective winner or favorite chocolates.” In more recent years, women have started to buy chocolates for their close female friends. These are known as “tomo–choko” or “friend chocolates.” Men are also starting to buy chocolates for women, called “gyaku-choko” or “reverse chocolates.” In the past decade, some people have also started to buy “jibun-choko” which literally means “self chocolate” as a gift to oneself.
According to my research, there are many different ideas and urban legends on just how Valentine’s Day was first introduced to Japan. One theory is that it started in the 1950s when Valentine’s Day was used as a marketing technique for American expatriates living in Japan. Another is that it began with high school girls in the 1970s. Two other theories are that a Kobe confectionery maker started it in 1936, and another that it started in Sony Plaza in 1968. Another urban legend is that a mistranslation led women to believe that the holiday was one where they give the gifts.
One of the things I love most about Japan is all the crazy translations of the chocolate names (among other things) such as, “Heart Warmy Chocolates,” “Love Love Chocolates” and “Sexy Chocolates.”
It is said that more than half of the chocolates sold in a year is sold around Valentine’s Day in Japan. Sounds like about half are obligation chocolates!