How Japanese Celebrate Valentine’s Day : Giri Choko vs Honmei Choko
How People in Japan Celebrate Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day in Japan is a major part of popular culture. Any story set in Japan (anime, light novel, live-action drama, and so on), is more than likely to feature Valentine’s Day sooner or later. Even fantasy or sci-fi genre shows, like the manga/anime Assassination Classroom, often have a Valentine’s Day episode or story arc.
(And also a White Day story arc! To read our article about Japanese White Day, click here).
Valentine’s Day in Japan is, in some ways, very like to Valentine’s Day in America. It is a holiday about romance and ritualized commercialism, and involves the activities of gift-giving and chocolate-eating.
Much like in America, the advertising is everywhere; and the color scheme is similar as well — reds and floral, spring-like colors. Yet, there are some key differences between an American and a Japanese Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day Gift-Giving
The valentine’s day difference between Japan and America has to do with gift giving.
1. Type and scope of gifts: In America, advertisements abound in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day for all sorts of gifts.
In America, people associate Valentine’s day with jewelry. People also give one another flower, decorations, chocolate or sweets, and other items. In Japan people give chocolates or small sweets, and these are often handmade.
According to a page on the website of the Nagoya International Center, 19% of people make their own 本命チョコ honmei choko gifts (for more on 本命チョコ honmei choko, see below). They can give other types of gifts, but chocolate is definitely the gift most associated with the holiday.
2. In America, both men and women give Valentine’s Day gifts. But in US, the pressure is more on men than women in regards to gift giving on Valentine’s day.
In Japan, it is the exact opposite; with the ones giving gifts on Valentine’s Day being girls and women. The trend of girls being the Valentine’s gift-givers is so strong that there is a special term for Valentine’s chocolate received by a girl or woman: 逆チョコ gyaku choko, which literally means “opposite chocolate.”
On the website for Japan’s Isetan Department Store this year, there is a page directed at men all about the idea of a “flower Valentine” (giving flowers for Valentine’s Day). But, it is uncommon for women to receive Valentine’s Day gifts (that is what White Day, one month later, is for).
3. Number of people one gives gifts to: In American elementary schools, children often make Valentine’s Day gifts and cards for the other children in their class. But once one gets older, they usually only give Valentine’s Day gifts to a significant other or to someone they want to date.
Some adults also give Valentine’s gifts to very close family members or best friend. But that practice varies person-to-person and is much less standardized than gift giving to one’s spouse, lover, crush, etc.
As a result, one does not generally receive more than one or two Valentine’s gifts in America. In Japan, yet, it is not uncommon for one boy or man to receive quite a deluge of Valentine’s Day gifts, whether they have a significant other or not.
Why? There are several reasons for this.
One is that in middle or high school, different girls might have their eyes on the same “untaken” boy. Some boys may end up receiving gifts from many girls, and some boys may receive few or even none.
Another reason is that both in adulthood and adolescence, the giving of Valentine’s Day chocolates does not necessarily have anything to do with romance.
Enter Giri Choko and Honmei Choko
Many girls and women give quite a few 義理チョコ giri choko, literally “obligation chocolate,” every year. Giri choko is chocolate given for Valentine’s Day to people one has no romantic intention toward. (Chocolate given with romantic intention is termed 本命チョコ honmei choko, which literally means “true favorite chocolate” or “heart’s desire chocolate.”)
Giri choko is given to friends, coworkers, upperclassmen, or bosses. They are people you might feel you owe the favor to, but not because they have done something in particular to you. It is more a general recognition of the million little favors they have done for you on a day to day basis.
Honmei choko (especially in school) and giri choko both have the potential to create a plethora of unspoken hurt feelings and damaged egos, since certain men (for a variety of reasons) may end up getting many giri choko, while some may get very few (or none).
The idea of giri choko can sometimes cross over with 友チョコ tomo choko. It literally means “friend chocolate,” which is the other type of non-romantic chocolate.
Many girls and women give honmei choko to their significant other, as well as giri choko and tomo choko to various other people, every year. Depending on the caliber of chocolate given, this can result in quite a bit of monetary expenditure.
Valentine’s day gift giving in Japan has lots of angst and excitement, same with any other romance related events.This is more true with adolescents, but sometimes adults too.
Who will give presents to whom, how many different people one may receive presents from, and whether certain of those presents are intended to be “giri” or “honmei” can be a matter of some tribulation and confusion.
As one might assume, Japan imported Valentine’s Day from the West. There is some disagreement about exactly when and how it was imported. However, it seems fairly certain that the very earliest mention of Valentine’s Day in Japan was in the late 1930s. Department stores like Isetan began selling products for Valentine’s day in the 1950s.
In the decades that followed, it became the full-blown commercial holiday it is today. If you visit the present website for Isetan’s Shinjuku branch store in February, you will see several buttons there: One button linked to a page devoted to Valentine’s Day shopping, and two devoted to chocolates.
Other Customs (Or Lack Thereof)
In America, the idea of having the “perfect” Valentine’s Day generally involves two things. The right gift and the right date. Its also the time for dressing up and going out to a specially selected restaurant. There have been countless American television and movie plotlines either about a Valentine’s Day of romance, or a Valentine’s Day gone wrong. Often, these plotlines mention a character feeling distressed at the idea of being single on Valentine’s Day.
But In Japan, the gift-giving element is what the focus tends to be on. Not that people do not also go on Valentine’s Day dates, but the emphasis is more on the gift and less on everything else. Whereas in America it all tends to be more wrapped together in people’s minds.
That being said, there are various companies in Japan that do date-related promotions for Valentine’s Day. This includes trains with certain seats printed with hearts.
Romance Outside of Valentine’s Day
While America only has one primary romance-based holiday, Japan has several others as well. After Valentine’s Day, the next romance-based holiday is White Day. If a boy or man receives a gift on Valentine’s Day, the gift giver expects a present in return. The present is usually given to the giver one month later on March 14th, which in Japan is called White Day.
Another romance-based holiday in Japan is Christmas Eve. In America Valentine’s day is family-oriented holiday, but in Japan it is a major event for couples.
Japan also has many customs related to romance that are not tied to holiday days. On the day children graduate from middle or high school, for example, many boys give the second button from their school uniform to a girl they are fond of.
Have you ever made homemade chocolate? How many people do you usually give Valentine’s Day gifts to? Is Valentine’s Day in your country more like America, or Japan?
Leave a comment and share your own Valentine’s Day experiences!