Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, the blog, painstakingly handmade and wrapped in the finest gift container to show our undying love and support. We’re your guides, presenters of the Culture Corner—and maybe even your valentines?—Kiki and Koko! This article, we’ll give you some fun and useful facts and terms concerning Japanese Valentines Day! You may be surprised to discover the differences when comparing St. Valentine’s Day in places like the States or the UK and Valentine’s traditions and attitudes in Japan. And, perhaps you think you’ve watched enough anime or television dramas to know about Japanese Valentine’s Day, you may be surprised to find out the differences to real life. You’ll hopefully learn a few Japanese vocabulary words along the way as we invite you to travel Japan if only through the digital realm. And, without further ado, it’s time to put away those roses and jewelry and get out your department store chocolate; Let’s NihonGO!!
A Western Holiday with a Unique Twist
Outside of the bustling homeroom, time stands still with the air weighing heavily around a lone school girl. Standing with her back to the wall next to the entryway beneath a window, she clutches a translucent, glistening , plastic bag filled with slightly misshapen homemade chocolates. It was the day she would finally告白, kokuhaku, confess her love—But, it’s not very likely outside of a television drama or anime.
In the West, you may think of Valentine’s Day as a holiday synonymous with roses, chocolates, cards, diamonds, love, and ロマンス, romansu. But, in Japan, the focus isn’t so much on any of the others as much as it rests on one similarity which is chocolate. Though this holiday is fairly new when you look at the ancient holidays from the beginning of the year like 正月, shougatsu, the holiday has become something all its own in Japan that has an entirely different set of traditions and attitudes that change through the years.
Valentine’s Day, otherwise known as バレンタインデー, barentaindee, in Japan can be simplified into one major theme: chocolate. Now, while there is a theme of showing you love or care for someone that is very prevalent, バレンタインデー, barentaindee, is oddly not really THE romantic holiday in Japan. Well, we suppose it should be more clearly explained. While it is still considered a day for love and caring, you won’t find this as the day people buy large fancy gifts like jewelry or even flowers. This is because there was already quite a recent holiday that is considered more traditionally… Valentiney. And, that’s Christmas! Yes, Japanese Christmas is considered more of a couples holiday rather than a family holiday in Japan.
But, Why Chocolate?
At this point, you may already be wondering, why chocolate? Well, maybe not, as it is something prevalent in the West, but rather, why only chocolate, and why to the extent that it is popular? We don’t think we’ve made it quite clear how much chocolate is at the holiday’s gooey centre. But, it will become clear in due time.
In Japan, department stores and grocery shops alike have events that run through different times of the year, like in many countries. As a smaller example, during the spring, there may be いちごフェア, ichigo fea, at the local market where the shops will push strawberries and strawberry flavoured products on special. Well, marketing like this can be very powerful.
In the mid to late 20th century, department stores started to promote チョコレートフェア, chokoreeto fea, for Valentine’s Day. The trends began with simply store-bought chocolate, then it moved onto a focus on chocolate making kits. The idea is that something made by hand with effort is more meaningful. Usually, you’ll find a message written on the larger heart-shaped chocolate, or even cute special molded designs like pandas or characters. But, chocolate cakes and other sorts of chocolates are also in the mix. Overall, it was simply due to marketing campagnes that it became so ubiquitous. Even Christmas in Japan was forever changed by pointed advertising. But, this isn’t the entirety of the traditions concerning chocolate on Valentine’s Day in Japan.
Choco for Who? Choco for Me, Choco for You
Types of Valentine’s Chocolates|バレンタインチョコの種類
While there may be an unspoken sort of tradition in other countries like the US and UK as to what sorts of things to get certain people for Valentine’s Day, as well as to whom they should be given, but in Japan, there is a much more spelled out and labelled version. (But, this sort of thing does come easier when the gifting is narrowed down to one category. There are generally two main categories of chocolate that we’ll list first.)
So, traditionally, or rather maybe un-traditionally depending on how you look at it, it’s girls that give boys chocolates during Valentine’s Day. But, no worries, as the traditionally male recipients are meant to return the favour, even three-fold, to the giver of the chocolate on a holiday known as White Day a month later. So, it’s meant to balance out. And, not to muddy the good feelings with business, but to also keep the story even, this, too, was a result of good marketing as well.
Though this may feel like a rigid idea, the point of it was supposed to be empowering in a way. In this century, we don’t really think of girls confessing their feelings to a boy to be very strange, but long ago in the 20th century, this was apparently unorthodox. This idea of girls being the ones giving the chocolates to who they chose what was meant to originally be a sort of feminist message. It was sort of to get women to say what they wanted and be forward with their feelings rather than stay silent and wait for men to approach them. Obviously, there are downside these days that we’ll mention, but it seemed well intended.
Speaking of intention, each type of chocolate is meant to convey something different and usually is categorised by these two main types of chocolate:
義理チョコ, girichoko (obligatory chocolate)
In Japan, culturally, even if it sounds like a broad brush, there’s definitely a perceived sense of social obligation. It’s a need to give and reciprocate. It’s the idea of basic social courtesy that can be self-sacrificing, but if everyone holds the same need to uphold social courtesies, then it will hopefully feel balanced. Sometimes it’s to do with reciprocating gifts evenly or reciprocating interactions.
Either way, 義理チョコ, often spelt ギリチョコ in katakana, is a catch-all term for chocolate that is given out of social obligation. Well, it sounds a bit cold when worded that way. What it’s really meant to be is innocuous chocolate just meant to show you care rather than confessing love. This idea of obligation is not meant to sound as negative as it vaguely might in English. It is out of caring for those around you, not out of selfishness or caring about your image. Of course, if you mention it’s just obligatory chocolate, it might hold a different context and sound colder than it should, but if you’re just doing it out of caring and give it to someone in your circle, they’ll usually know the difference.
ギリチョコ, girichoko, is often store-bought, but if you’re feeling like going a bit over-the-top, it can be homemade and still be considered ギリチョコ, girichoko.
This reminds us not of the UK, but of a tradition in the States. In the US, school children will give Valentines to every single student in the class as not to make people feel left out if you don’t ‘Choo-choo choose’ them, and you won’t make anyone’s heart split in two. So, there is something interesting about that which may have something of this feeling. It’s meant to be a social courtesy rather than a proper admission of caring or feelings. Rather, a show that you don’t hold ill-will. However, it’s understood that ギリチョコ in Japan is meant to be given to close friends and colleagues rather than every single person you know.
本命チョコ, honmeichoko (heart’s desire chocolate)
Whilst ギリチョコ, girichoko, is meant for anyone, 本命チョコ, honmeichoko,is chocolate meant for someone for whom you have feelings. This chocolate is meant to make an impact. Traditionally and in media, you’ll see this used to propose feelings for someone, and then the exciting prospect is to have the gift reciprocated on White Day a month later. Another traditional idea is making this chocolate yourself to be sure that your heart and soul are put into this gift. Effort is definitely something that is important when it comes to this, but in recent years, there are definitely some updates to these ideas.
As time continues, there are new kinds of chocolate categorised for the holiday. Though, they all still sort of fall under the two categories, these are definitely still worth mentioning to give you a full picture of the holiday.
逆チョコ, gyakuchoko, (Reverse Chocolate)
While the idea of girls giving chocolate to boys on Valentine’s Day was meant to flip the script, the script has been flipped once more. 逆チョコ, gyakuchoko, is chocolate given to girls from boys. It’s all about caring, anyway, so chocolate for everyone!
友チョコ, tomochoko (Friend Chocolate)
This is the chocolate you gift your friends. You can either give out simple chocolate or more elaborate homemade chocolate, but if you have a lot of friends you are giving out chocolate to, then you may end up simply giving store-bought chocolate. It’s just meant to show them you care.
ファミチョコ, famichoko (Family Chocolate)
If you’re giving chocolate to your friends, of course, you’ll want to give them to your family. Of course, this is a bit self-explanatory. But, this is a shortening of the English word, ファミリー, famirii. But, just like the shortening of the word チョコレート, chokoreeto, it just makes it easier to say.
社交チョコ, shakouchoko (Social Life Chocolate)
This is the catch-all for chocolate given to those at your work or technically even school. This falls under the idea of ギリチョコ, girichoko, but seems to also give more context, differentiating between those that are friends and family. This is the category that starts to make the chocolate obligations start to become a bit much, especially depending on the quality of these possibly pricey sweeties.
世話チョコ, sewachoko, (Support Chocolate)
This chocolate is meant to be given to people who have looked after you or just supported you in some way or another.
ファンチョコ, fanchoko (Fan Chocolate)
They may not be a close personal friend, but maybe you’re a big fan of their work. This is the chocolate that is given to actors, musicians, celebrities, and people who you admire, but you’re just a big fan. But, if everyone gives them chocolate, they probably won’t be able to eat it all. So, maybe just chocolate emoji are okay for this category as well. (ノ🍫\・ω・)
マイチョコ, maichoko (My Chocolate)
This can also be known as 自己チョコ, jikochoko, or 自分チョコ, jibunchoko, each meaning self chocolate and oneself’s chocolate respectively. With all of the chocolate being given, why not treat yourself? This is the chocolate that you buy or make with the intention of gifting it to yourself. You know you deserve it!
Differences between Drama and Real Life
Of course, many love the idea of the blushing school girl professing their love to their crush on Valentine’s Day with a bag full of handmade 本命チョコ, honmeichoko, and a heart full of resolve. But, that’s just not how things seem to be in reality.
Apparently, it’s only a rarity for girls to confess their to their true love on Valentine’s Day. And, if it is done, it’s usually with store-bought chocolate, as giving them such a gift full of effort and heart would mean they would have to return the favour that much more which would ironically be an inconvenience.
Even 本命チョコ, honmeichoko, itself is only rarely given to prospective persons. It’s usually something given to someone with whom the girl is already in a relationship, whether young or elder. Usually this will be given by wives or girlfriends rather than a lovestruck schoolmate.
Just as it reads, there truly are a lot of chocolate obligations, but as of late, these have been being recognised as more of a burden than an obligation. Though seemingly synonymous, there have now been many companies banning 義理チョコ, girichoko, amongst coworkers. It is important to note that this is not the only gift-giving time of the year.For example, if someone travels out of the country on holiday and returns, it’s expected that sort of this same circle to whom you would give social chocolate, you would end up giving お土産, omiyage, otherwise known as souvenirs. So, with all of these social obligations already, one can only imagine how strained it would become making sure that you cover all of the social hierarchy with chocolate. And, then people question whether they should give their boss chocolate or coworkers with whom they aren’t even very close. And, all in all, it’s just something that complicates life as a whole. And, if anything, that hopefully shows the company cares.
Keep in mind, all of these are expected to be reciprocated on White Day which is exactly a month later on 14 March. Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing…So, hope, boys, [it’s] a cheap thing, cheap thing. (And, that was our rationale for this article’s name. That, and chocolate…which is sweeter in the UK than in the US or Japan.)
Overall, the whole idea has still persisted when it comes to Valentine’s Day in Japan, but since its commercialisation and inception, things have certainly changed. Maybe things will continue to change when it comes to these traditions, but for now, you’ll have a good grasp of the unique aspects of Japanese Valentine’s traditions.
We wish you a Valentine’s Day full of love and chocolates! But, hey, you don’t need someone else to feel loved on Valentine’s Day, just have yourself some マイチョコ, and treat yourself. If you think you don’t have a Valentine, know we’re here for you this Valentine’s Day. Every time we create a new lesson or an article, it’s a bit of handmade 本命チョコ, honmeichoko, just for you. But, you can feel part of an even larger group by enjoying these lessons with all of the others who are partaking in these alongside you. Perhaps you’d even like to reciprocate our 本命チョコ, honmeichoko, so that we can continue giving out these sweeties to everyone out there who needs them. You can give us a bit of ギリチョコ, girichoko, in supporting the content by subscribing, following, and more! We appreciate it more than you know~
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Happy Valentine’s Day!