Welcome to the Bizarro World of Japanese Valentine's Day!

When I first encountered the enigma of Japanese Valentine's Day, I was an English-teaching assistant in a Japanese junior high school, a gaijin fresh off the plane with nary a word of Japanese in my vocabulary—I could barely communicate basic needs, let alone ask anybody out on a date. Imagine my surprise when I walked in on Valentine's Day, a holiday I didn't know the Japanese even celebrated, to find a stack of little chocolate candies atop my desk, some left by students (how cute!) and others by female colleagues old enough to be my grandmother (how...disturbing!). Well, I was only one of about 3 foreigners in my small Kansai town...maybe I was getting the celebrity treatment?

Just when my head was starting to inflate with delusions of grandeur, I saw members of the school's female persuasion, young, old and in-between, coming into the staffroom and discreetly placing the same types of tiny chocolates onto the desks of other male colleagues. And most of the time, save when some tittering students did it for a favorite sensei, there was very little nervousness, giddiness, or romance involved. So Valentine's Day was suddenly a holiday for guys, to be observed without romantic fanfare! I thought, I'm now officially in Bizarro World!

photo source: roundtheworldcooking.com

While it turns out that Valentine's Day is actually for guys in Japan, romance is actually only half dead! You see, the women in my staffroom were doling out what is known as giri-choco, or "courtesy chocolates." At least as I understand it now, these are given to male colleagues and superiors as a show of deference and respect on Valentine's Day, but don't usually signal any romantic intentions. As such, they also don't tend to be very expensive. But as always in Japan, the packaging is sublime. Here are some examples of typical giri-choco that satisfies one's sense of duty without betraying her wallet.


So where's the romantic spark, you ask? When those same women finish work, they have likely prepared honmei choco, loosely translated by me as, "real deal chocolates," for their boyfriends, husbands, or blushing first dates. Of course, some women will go beyond chocolates, presenting candies, other sweets and even (GASP!) sweaters or other warm outerwear. Perhaps in recognition that little heart-shaped chocolates might be a bit to feminine for the occasion, some companies have gone as far as to market candies in more "guy-friendly" shapes such as cars, planes, trains, and yes, even planets and galaxies! I tried to get my wife to splurge on Saturn. No luck.

photo source: shop.tokyu-dept.co.jp

Many of you may be asking: What in the world is in it for the women? Well, White Day—the day when the men must pay up, as it were—happens exactly one month after Valentine's Day! So when it comes to this holiday, everybody is created equal and should therefore be pretty happy about it, right? Well, not exactly! Not surprisingly, about 70% of men surveyed by Let's Enjoy Tokyo admitted that they'd prefer their "courtesy chocolates" in the 500 yen (5 dollar) range; men getting "the real deal" were only slightly more self-indulgent, with 22% in the 500 yen range and 35% hoping for no more than a 1000 yen (10 dollar) spending spree on their behalf. That's a whopping 57%! Why? Because they know the Golden Rule: That gifts given (back) on White Day should be of equal or greater value than the Valentine's ones!

So there seems to be an entire "worry industry" built around how much people should spend, on whom and on what level! I don't personally worry about it much anymore. My wife and I usually go for a candlelight dinner where we can share the good times instead of worrying about who's day it is to be romantic. It's nice if there's some candy involved, but of course the most important thing is to be together.

That said, I really wish my wife would buy me a chocolate planet this year. I think I deserve it. ;-)

photo source: Marialuisa Ferraro