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Valentine’s Day in Japan: The Meaning of the Chocolate you Give

You might be surprised to learn that Valentine's Day in Japan is celebrated rather differently than in much of the rest of the world.

Firstly, it's a day when only women give gifts to men, usually in the form of chocolates or cookies. And, secondly, it's not an exclusively romantic holiday.

Valentine's Day in Japan 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.

valentines day japan

Giri choco or Obligation chocolate

First there are the giri choco (義理チョコ) 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 male boss, co-workers, teachers, relatives or 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 rather 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!

Several examples of giri choco for Japanese Valentine's Day laid out on a table, including a heart-shaped cookie in a bag with a pink bow, a Hello Kitty chocolate heart, small boxes of chocolates and a lollipop.
Valentine's Day giri choco from my kindergarten students. While it's primarily a day for men to receive gifts in Japan, my international kindy kids decided to give me something too – a kind of merging of the Western concept of Valentine's Day being for both men and women, and the Japanese idea of giving to the people in your life you want to give thanks to. Although you might not give something as “cutesy” to a co-worker, it does give you an example of the kind of thing that would be expected as a giri choco – a small chocolate treat or other kind of sweet (always boxed or wrapped).

Honmei choco or Special chocolates for your love

Honmei choco (本命チョコ) means “favorite chocolates” and are given as an expression of love or romantic interest.

Honmei chocolate is when things can get really pricey. In the lead-up to Valentine's Day in Japan, stores run overtime 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 store-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.

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 or Friend chocolates

Tomo choco (友チョコ) are “friend chocolates” – tomo coming from the word tomodachi, meaning ‘friend' in Japanese.

Tomo choco is the exception to the rule when it comes to male-only gift-giving. These are basically chocolates or baked goods that women give to their female friends as an expression of their friendship. It is a popular activity among school girls.

They are often homemade 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.

An example of a tomo choco (friend chocolate) - a ladybug chocolate stuck onto a piece of green paper that has been cut into the shape of a leaf. Handwritten on the leaf are the words "Peace begins with a smile. Your lovely smile."
An example of a tomo choco (friend chocolate).

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 (obligation chocolate). 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.

When the intention of the gift isn't clear

If the nature of the relationship and gesture is clear, the intention of the gift usually isn't difficult to decipher.

But the fact that women are giving gifts to people they wouldn't normally give them to on this day, can lead to the occasional misconception that an obligation chocolate (giri choco) is more than that. Especially as many women opt to bulk-make their Valentine's Day gifts at home nowadays to keep costs down. A home-made gift is no longer a clear indication of romantic intent.

It can also work as a testing ground for a potential new relationship, in that a woman may be giving the gift with the intention of a honmei choco, but can do so in the safety of knowing that if the guy doesn't reciprocate their feelings, they can brush it off as a giri choco.

Giri choco ban?

As you can see, Japanese Valentine's Day is a lot of work for women in Japan. In many ways, it has become a social burden and just another holiday in which they are expected to participate.

Some companies have actually started banning giri choco in the workplace as it often causes disruption to the entire day's flow of activities. I have even spoken to people whose companies have been paying for chocolates to be couriered from workers at one branch to another, simply to fulfill this social obligation.

The high-end Belgian chocolate company Godiva, immensely popular in Japan, sparked controversy in 2018 when they took out a full-page newspaper ad calling for an end to obligation chocolate giving.

In the ad, the President of Godiva Japan says, “Some women say they hate Valentine’s Day because it takes a lot of energy to think whom to give it (giri choco) to and make preparations. Valentine’s Day is the day people convey their true feelings, not the day people coordinate relationships at work.”

While many would agree with the sentiment, underlying the social commentary seems to be a rather clever marketing campaign. Aside from the attention the brand has received from the polarizing ad, high-end chocolates like Godiva being given as giri choco is not the norm anyway, so by condemning the practice, they are only hurting their cheaper competition.

By encouraging women to focus on the special people in their lives, they are not only appealing to the “true meaning” of Valentine's Day (and their desire to stop a practice they might not really like), but encouraging more spending on expensive brands like theirs by implying that the more you spend, the more the recipient means to you.

The Valentine's Day that comes after Valentine's Day in Japan

Love it or hate it, Valentine's Day is only step one in a two-stage holiday in Japan.

While men do not give any gifts on Valentine's Day in Japan, they are expected to reciprocate the gift giving a month later on March 14th, on a day known as ‘White Day' when men give gifts to women. Find out what happens on White Day in Japan here (spoiler: like Valentine's Day, it's more complicated than you'd think!).

Do you celebrate Valentine's Day? Do you have any special traditions where you live? What do you think of Japanese Valentine's Day?

Image: Shared under Creative Commons license (Unsplash)

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David

Monday 11th of June 2018

This is quite interesting...the way Japaneses celebrate Valentines day, very interesting.

Green Global Trek

Wednesday 28th of March 2018

This was a fascinating read. I love cultural differences and this Japanese one around Valentines day is interesting. I am not a big fan of commercial holidays with obligatory gifts and commercial benefit. Even Christmas today is mostly about consumption unfortunately. Interesting PR tactic by Godiva. Often controversy gets the most attention.

Peta

Jessica Korteman

Tuesday 24th of April 2018

Hi Peta,

So true. We feel the same way about commercialism/consumption. But we do find the cultural differences very interesting.

Thank you for reading/commenting!

Les Petits Pas de Juls

Monday 12th of February 2018

Always such a treat to read about those peculiarties! And as long as there's chocolate involved, you will always find me lurking around the corner! ;-)

Happy chocolate making!

Jessica Korteman

Tuesday 24th of April 2018

Haha Thanks, Jul'! I don't make/buy any for Valentine's Day, but am partial to a bit of chocolate every now and then. ;)

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