St. Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays. Like many other holidays it has historically religious roots, but in modern times has become a day centered around gifting. This is understandable as holiday purchasing is good for any economy. But introduced with consumer culture in mind and coupled with varying opinions on what counts as acts of love, it is easy to see how Valentine’s Day might be celebrated differently across countries & cultures.
Fans of Japanese anime, J-dramas, and Japanese culture might have some idea as to how this holiday is celebrated in Japan since it is a mainstay in the slice of life genre and interesting to learn about. Here we will talk a little bit about the history of Valentine’s Day in Japan and how it has taken on a life of its own.
We actually don’t know a lot about the true history of Saint Valentine who lends his name to the popular holiday aside from legends and speculation. We know there was some intersection between a Roman Catholic day to celebrate a saint and pagan holiday for fertility. And we know that in the 5th century, February 14 was officially declared St. Valentine’s Day by Pope Gelasius.
But what about Japan? Well, many many many years later, in the 1930s, with the help of confectionery companies St. Valentine’s Day first attempted to break into the Japanese market, although popularity for the holiday was quite low.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when companies and department stores started selling cheaper chocolates with better advertising aimed towards young girls who learned they could confess their love without words, that St. Valentine’s Day started to gain momentum. The kawaii culture boom of the 70s also helped instill the desire to give cutely decorated gifts, only helping the chocolate holiday.
However, starting in the 70s and then moving forward, Japan started creating traditions around St. Valentine’s Day that differed slightly from many western countries. Politeness culture, which is a dominating social trait of the Japanese population, gave birth to many kinds of chocolate that girls could give out on the special days, including to their acquaintances and work colleagues.
In a time of even greater gender inequality in Japan, young women being outspoken about their romantic feelings was not and is still not as socially accepted as it is in many other countries. Therefore, candy companies were not only making profits on a holiday, but were giving young girls a voice and a method of self expression and desire.
So to conceal the young girl’s true intention, and so that others around them wouldn’t feel left out, chocolate Valentine’s gifts were categorized into three main types; an obligation chocolate, a friend chocolate, and a true love chocolate.
An “obligation chocolate” or giri choco, is small and or relatively inexpensive chocolate that is designed to be given out en masse to boys around said girl. These are polite, and slightly obligatory gifts of any type of chocolate, that are given out so that no one is left out or offended. And of course, as per tradition, these are chocolates given by girls and women to boys and men around them.
A “friend chocolate” or tomo choco is a lot more fun to make or to buy. Tomo chocolate is simply girls giving gifts to their usually female friends. This more casual tomo choco ritual is not that far away from the recently popular, “Gal-entine’s Day” where girls and women choose to spend this day of love with their friends and platonic love instead of with romance and dates.
The “true love chocolate” or the honmei choco is chocolate that holds the true love and feelings of the giver. Usually handmade or a bit expensive, honmei choco is the reason for the holiday in Japan. Girls may spend hours melting, shaping, decorating, and designing special chocolate treats in ornately wrapped containers hoping that the receiver will take one bite of this chocolate and somehow know every ounce of love the maker poured into it.
Going after someone popular? Put even more effort into making sure your chocolate stands out among your competitors. Boys and men in Japan have been known to only accept honmei choco from someone they are actually interested in, and only if it is handmade. So if you want to make your move in Japan on February 14th, the pressure may be on.
Want to know more about the different chocolates given on Valentine’s Day in Japan and easy chocolate recipes? Check our other blogs on Japanese Valentine’s Day chocolate.
Have you ever given a gift to someone and been nervous about how they would receive it? Then you understand how difficult it can be to give out your true love chocolates. And thus another trend was started to further protect the girl from ridicule and rejection, giving the chocolate anonymously.
Conveniently for Japanese students, the shoe locker, which is left unlocked, turned out to be the perfect place for love notes and honmei chocolate that you don’t have the courage to give in person.
But wait, what is a shoe locker? For those not familiar with Japanese practices, it is customary to remove your shoes when entering many establishments. Schools are one of those establishments, and students are required to have a special pair of indoor shoes that they change into upon arrival. Both their indoor & outdoor shoes are kept in the school locker near the school’s entryway.
For those who did have their honmei choco accepted by the object of their affection, they have another holiday to look forward to, White Day. White Day is a very Japanese holiday based on the idea of “repayment.” In Japan, every gift given needs another gift to repay the first gift leading to a cycle of customary politeness.
So while Valentine’s Day was targeted towards young girls giving chocolate and expressing their secret true feelings to boys, White Day was created as a holiday in which boys could politely repay this favor, and of course spend more money.
Although there is no hard and fast rule about what kind of gift you should give out on White Day, the average price tag of the repayment gift has gone up and up as time goes on. Girls and women can expect to receive a lot more than a small box of chocolates on White Day.
Of course all of these Valentine’s and White Day traditions are just that, traditions. Which means they are subject to change and as time goes on new traditions are being made along the way. Some businesses are banning giri choco as they reevaluate their power dynamics within the company. Members of the LGBT+ community are also turning heteronormative traditions around by giving chocolate to who they want, when they want, outside of the heavily gendered traditions.
So, what do you think about Valentine’s Day in Japan, and which tradition do you want to try this February 14th?
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