Valentine’s Day seems as well-known and celebrated in Japan as it is in the US. But it is quite different. And those differences reflect general differences between Japanese and American culture. In the US, Valentine’s Day is a day for anyone to express love or romantic feelings.
In Japan, however, Valentine’s Day mainly revolves around two things- women getting a rare opportunity to assert romantic feelings and societal obligation. Valentine’s Day in Japan is not the all-purpose day of expressing love that it is in the US. In Japan, it is the women who give chocolates to their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives, and so on. Men, generally don’t do anything on Valentine’s Day for their special someone, as the day is an opportunity for women who might usually be more reserved about expressing romantic or sexual feelings to assert themselves.
Unlike the US, where flowers, jewelry, or even non-material things are given, in Japan chocolate is the gift of choice. Chocolate giving that has romantic intent is called honmei choco. Honmei is usually translated as favorite but in this context, more accurately refers to the ‘real deal’ or ‘true target’.
The other important aspect of Japanese Valentine’s is giving chocolate out of obligation to someone. Obligation chocolate or giri choco is given to bosses or friends or to someone a favor is owed for whatever reason. Obligation or doing something because it is societally expected due to one’s position (including gender) is a big deal in Japanese society. There are several types of giri choco or more broadly speaking non-romantic chocolate giving:
Tomo choco or friend chocolate, usually given amongst women.
Gyaku choco or opposite chocolate, from a male to a female. Although this could be honmei choco if the guy has serious feelings.
Kyouteki choco is friend chocolate given amongst male friends. This one has some jokey connotation as kyouteki means rival, opponent, or enemy.
Jiko choco is chocolate bought by oneself, for oneself. Not sure where the obligation is but this one is either an action of sad resignation or fuck it, chocolate is delicious and I might as well pick out what I like and treat myself.
The idea of obligation actually extends a month past February 14th to March 14th or White Day. This Japanese made day (now also celebrated in South Korea and other Asian countries) is the day where men can return the favor for having received something on Valentines. Usually, instead of chocolate, cookies or white chocolate is given. It is nowhere near as exciting or popular as Valentine’s Day but department stores and confectionaries do advertise and sell goods themed around the day.
My favorite day has to be the ingenious reaction to Valentine’s Day and White Day invented in Korea, Black Day. Black Day is “celebrated” on… you guessed it… April 14th. On this infamous day, those who received no professions of love on Valentine’s or White Day gather wearing black to eat black bean sauce noodles or jajangmyeon1 and wallow together in their romantic misery. And probably in hopes of possibly hooking up with each other in a last ditch effort to escape single-hood.