Today the expression of love is being celebrated the world over. But ladies, if you're waiting for a grand romantic gesture this Japanese Valentine's Day, you're bound for disappointment.
Valentine's Day in Japan is all about women giving gifts, usually chocolates or cookies, to men. It is also not an exclusively romantic holiday either. Valentine's Day is a day to acknowledge all the men in your life, even platonic relationships and that guy who sits a few desks down from you. The amount of money and effort you put into your treats reflects the nature of your relationship. The Japanese, therefore, have different terms for varying levels of gift-giving.
First there are the giri-choco or “obligation chocolates.” As the name suggests, these are given to those to whom we are obligated to give Valentine's Day candy. Examples could be your boss, co-workers, teachers or male friends. So as not to get any wires crossed, giri-choco are usually quite run-of-the-mill and not of very high value. There is also the unfortunate term cho-giri-choco or “super obligatory chocolates” given to those we really don't want to give chocolates to but if you're giving something to everyone else…well, it would be very un-Japanese not to!
Honmei-choco means “favorite chocolates” and are given as an expression of love or romantic interest. This is when things can get really pricey. In the lead-up to Valentine's Day, stores run over-time selling immaculately presented boxes of sugary delights, even opening up special booths that stay open longer than department stores and shops to cater to the masses seeking that special gift to impress.
While bought chocolates are perfectly acceptable, home-made treats are considered the ultimate honmei-choco as they demonstrate time and effort, and hence are said to say something about your feelings for the person. That's why, along with the packaged variety, stores suddenly display an overwhelming selection of baking items from heart-shaped cookie cutters to colorful frosting to all manner of decorations for your sweetie's sweets. All kawaii (cute), of course! With so much emphasis placed on presentation, the home-made variety are not necessarily more cost-effective, but are a clear sign of your affection.
Tomo-choco are “friend chocolates” – tomo coming from the word tomodachi meaning “friend” in Japanese. This type of chocolate is the exception to the rule when it comes to male-only gift-giving. These are basically chocolates or baked goods that girls give to their female friends as an expression of their friendship. They are often home-made as giving out gifts to all your female friends, classmates or club members can add-up price-wise. They might be something like a cookie in a clear or decorated plastic bag with a twist tie and a short message such as “Thank you” attached.
Some women just give tomo-choco to all their friends, male or female, rather than making their male friends feel left out or distinguishing the gift in some way as a giri-choco. They are all friends, after all! What one gives as a tomo-choco and a giri-choco could in fact be the same confectionery, what is different is the motivation behind it – one is given out of genuine friendship, the other out of courtesy.
As many women opt to hand-make their Valentine's Day gifts to keep costs down given the ever-more circles of people to buy for, the honmei-choco aside; there can be the occasional misconception that a giri-choco is more than that. Or perhaps it is and the giver is not wanting to make their advances too obvious should the receiver not reciprocate their feelings. If the relationship is not already clear, which category you fall under is left as one of those social puzzles for the guys to decipher.
Of course, like any gift-giving, the closer someone is in your circle of friends, the more effort you are likely to put into their gifts. Hence, Japanese women might give a slightly nicer or bigger gift to their closest friends and something smaller for their wider circle of friends. At the same time, it should be noted that, like Valentine's Day across the world, not everybody chooses to participate in the candy frenzy.
Love it or hate it, Valentine's Day in Japan is more than a romantic holiday. It is one of intricate social dynamics that as a resident, worker and sometimes even as a traveler, you have to negotiate and perhaps in some ways participate in, despite the attached commercialism and obligation that many despise.
What about the men, I hear you ask? Don't worry, pay-back comes a month later in a big way when the Japanese celebrate White Day. You'll probably agree it's worth the month's wait! More on that next month.
Until then, whether you are spending a romantic day with someone special or celebrating Singles Awareness Day, we hope that life finds you well and that our shared love, travel, has big plans for you this year!