Japanese Customs: Valentine’s Day

Helen from Inn by the Sea Kamakura helped me out with last year’s The History of Christmas in Japan post, but I’m on my own for Valentine’s Day! Last week I mentioned some rather odd superstitions about love and romance in JapanーI’m still trying to get to the bottom of the gorilla pen problemーbut this week I’ll be focusing on the upcoming commercial holiday everyone loves to hate: Valentine’s Day! As with Christmas, it’s kind of “special” in Japan. But to understand why, we’ll have to travel back in time a bit. Join me if you will, back to pre-WWII Kobe, Japan.

Mistranslation = Ladies First

Japanese customs: valentine's day

Although widespread popularity of Valentine’s Day in Japan started in the 1950s, it was actually first introduced in as early as 1936 by the department store Mozoroff Ltd. Headquartered in Kobe, this chocolate and confectionary giant was started by a Russian by the name of Fedor Dmitrievich Morozoff back in 1931. The company first advertised its Valentine’s chocolate offerings in an English-language newspaper on the 12th of February, and it snowballed from there. Though it wasn’t until 1953 that Mozoroff pushed heart-shaped chocolates onto consumers to cash in on the holiday to a wider audience. Japanese companies were quick to pick up on the trend, and soon countless other confectioners and candy makers were soon joining in and selling their own sweets in honor of this new Feb 14th “holiday”. However, due to a mistranslation of a statement made by an overseas chocolate company executive, people thought that chocolates were meant to be give by women to men. A literal “lost in translation” scenario! Annnnd that mistranslation stuck and is now a well-cemented tradition.

Women show their affection (or sense of duty) to the men in their livesーfathers, brothers, sons, bosses, co-workers and so on. 義理チョコ/giri choco/”obligation chocolate” is the term used for the sweets you have to buy to maintain good relations with the menfolk around you. It can be particularly trying for some women who buy chocolates for their coworkersーin a majority of workplaces women are outnumbered by men, which means they have to spend a lot of money on people they don’t necessarily like…just to keep the peace. Which is presumably an even harder blow when your salary is much lower than that of the choco receiver. Ouch.

However, as with many things in the universe, there is balance!

 Every Good Turn Deserves Another (More Expensive One)

white day

Because of this chocolate-giving translation oopsie, both marketers and female consumers found it only fair that there should be a specific day for men to return the favor of presents to the women in their lives. And thus, White Day on March 14th, was figuratively born. Businesses have taken further advantage of this extra holiday and offer chocolate at inflated ratesーand it’s not just chocolate! There’s a general rule of thumb that men should buy gifts that are three times the worth of the chocolate they received back in February. So if a man gets a ¥1,000 box of chocolates, then he has to give back something worth ¥3,000! Luckily for the girls, savvy marketers have encouraged gentlemen to buy accessories like scarves, make up pouches etcーthings that would fall into the “more expensive” range automatically. (Then again, women have to contend with some men’s poor, or complete lack of taste!)

Gift giving is taken very seriously in Japan, and almost always something is expected in return. And many people have a good idea of how much something costs so they know how much the gift they should give later after receiving something…or conversely, they know exactly how stingy the office guy with the “crappy” White Day gift is…which may well lead to some bad vibes at work. Also, there’s always some abuser of the system: a woman may hand over ¥5,000 and ask to have three times the cash back the following month. (Cheeky!) And it’s for these very reasons many companies have banned Valentine’s and White Day gift exchanges completely. (It’s the thought that counts, right? That and the price tag!)

 Valentines, Beware!

valentines disaster

Never fear though, it’s not all about obligation and expensive chocolate! Valentine’s Day is actually one of the few openly acceptable avenues for women wanting to confess their feelings to guys they like. Often, if it’s not giri choco, they’ll “make it themselves”. This is so-called 手作り/tezukuri /literally “handmade” chocolate… But mostly involves buying bars of chocolate, melting them and letting them harden in new shapesーhearts, bears and whathaveyou. Weird and not really “handmade” at all, but mostly harmless. OR SO YOU WOULD THINK. Remember the superstitions from last week? I didn’t mention them there, but there are a few (emphasis on few) girls who believe that by adding parts of themselves: hair, spit, nail clippings and/or menstrual blood to the chocolate, it’ll work as a “love potion” and the guy eating it will fall madly in love with them. It trended on Twitter last year and is thoroughly terrifying. And gross. Please don’t try this at home. Or anywhere else. Or eat any handmade chocolate you’ve received, unless you completely trust that person.

 Chocolate for Every Man

daigo purple hair

Even for purple-haired dudes that look like Daigo. Wuiiishhh!

If handmade chocolates aren’t your thing (they shouldn’t be after that last unveiling), there are other options. Every year chocolatiers get more creativeーthere’s chocolate in the shape of tools for your average handyman, or golf club-shaped ones for the social dad, soccer balls for the team captain, etc. A few years ago, I spotted some rather extraordinary ones for 草食系男子/soushokukei danshi/herbivore boys and their more sexually aggressive counterpart, 肉食系(男子)/nikushokukei (danshi)/carnivore (boys). I wrote about herbivores and what they are some time back if you need a 101, or a refresher.


The guy on the left with the purple hair is a herbivore, and the one on the right is a carnivore

So I’m sure you’re wondering “Wait, we were just talking about chocolate, what’s with the ramen photo on the packages!? Do people give instant ramen on Valentine’s Day too?” Well, maybe they do, but that’s not what this is! Japan loves a good pun, and here we have some serious wordplay: イケメン/ikemen means a hot/good-looking guy. “Men” can be either the English word meaning several male people (duh) but the word 麺 (noodle) is pronounced the same: “men”. So ikemen = hot guy or ike-noodle…

This noodle/boy connection was boosted by comedian Eikou Kano, who is known for humorous skits pretending to be a really hot guy completely in love with himself. The phrase that became most famous was “ラーメン、つけ麺、僕はイケメン!/Ramen, tsukemen, boku wa ikemen!/ Ramen (noodles), tsukemen (noodles), I’m a hot guy!” ….I swear it’s funny if you watch it. (So many tie-ins to the last post on love!)

Regardless! Here’s proof there were no noodles in these ikemen packages:

ikemen chocolate

Mmm, chocolate

And yes, I ate them myself that year. For science!

Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day?

9 responses to “Japanese Customs: Valentine’s Day”

  1. Autumn says:

    So if all the women at work really hate one guy, they should give him super expensive chocolates. With menstrual blood. Awesome.
    Autumn recently posted…A Tale of Two Immigrants (#173)

    • Ri says:

      Exactly! Although for the superstitious, then maybe menstrual blood should be avoided. They wouldn’t want the guy to actually fall for them… OH! They could always take a leaf out of “The Help” and offer up some “chocolate” pie?

  2. Marta says:

    I never celebrate Valentine’s day! Moreover, this 14th of February I wasn’t even with C… I went to my company’s annual party in Shenzhen! (right next to Hong Kong). I bought him an iPad in Hong Kong and gave to him yesterday, does that count as a Valentine’s gift? 😛

    The handmade chocolate with a part of yourself is SO GROSS. It definitely has to be teenagers’ superstitions!!
    Marta recently posted…Chinese New Year decorations in Shanghai

  3. This is so interesting. Valentine’s Day is nothing like this in Taiwan.

    I must say that Valentine’s Day and gift-giving seems like a big and serious deal in Japan not to mention a big money making holiday for the retailers. However, I didn’t realize that the rules are so strict. Whatever happened to giving gifts to the people you want to give them to – I think I would find it hard giving presents to people just out of obligation.

    And the adding ‘personal’ stuff to chocolate and getting to person you like to consume it sounds pretty gross.
    Constance – Foreign Sanctuary recently posted…My Taiwanese Husband & His Major Present Flop [What NOT to Give a Woman]

  4. Haha I finally understand that joke now! I’ve seen the comedian on TV and now it makes more sense.

    Thank you for sharing all the insight. It reminded me, I should probably get chocolate for Hachi’s dad/brothers. They’re so kind to me I want the chance to show them I appreciate it.

    I really need to update my blog! I made chocolate covered strawberries last year and wrote lovey messages on them but this year I bought chocolate. Two kind of joke chocolates and one nice one with cute cat themed chocolates. Ah I want to spoil the silly ones, but I will save it for the blog. Basically, you are totally right they make chocolate of every shape and form!

    Anyways, looking forward to reading more~ <3
    Miyagi Mermaid recently posted…The Good News 1:22

    • Ri says:

      Yeah Japanese comedy is tough to navigate sometimes. I always wonder if it’s just me not getting it, or if I actually don’t think it’s funny. XD

      Aww, I’m sure chocolates for Hachi’s family would be much appreciated! 😀

      Looking forward to reading about the silly chocolates on an upcoming post then! 🙂 待っていまーす! ^^)/

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