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Honouring love and affection, Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14 in many countries around the world. But the traditions and practices associated with the day vary greatly.

Originally a festival honouring Christian Martyrs, Valentine’s Day has become something else altogether.

Valentine's Day cards

In the West, Valentine’s Day is all about confessing one’s love to a significant other. Millions of cards are given or sent, often anonymously, and lucky Valentines are showered with a variety of gifts from cute teddy bears to costly jewellery. However, Valentine’s Day in Japan is all about the chocolate!

How has a Christian festival been transformed into a celebration of romantic love and why is chocolate big in Japan?

What are the origins of Valentine’s Day?

Valentine’s Day was originally a Christian feast day that honoured one or more Christian Martyrs. Several martyrs were named Valentine, and little is known about any of them. For this reason, it isn’t entirely clear how those martyrs have become associated with romantic love. Many of the stories about the martyrs were written centuries after their deaths and may have little basis in truth.

Monk Valentine's Day

One of the martyrs concerned was a Roman priest, referred to as Saint Valentine, who is said to have been persecuted and then executed, possibly by Emperor Claudius II. Legend has it that Saint Valentine performed clandestine marriages, and this could be how the connection between him and romantic love was first established.

In the 18th century, a further version of Saint Valentine’s story suggested that the night before his execution, Valentine wrote a card to the daughter of his jailer, signing it as “your Valentine”. This story could have inspired the giving of cards on Valentine’s Day and the expression “from your Valentine”.

It has also been suggested that Saint Valentine cut hearts from parchment and gave these to persecuted Christians. This legend may be responsible for the strong association between Valentine’s Day and heart imagery.

The first written reference to Valentine’s Day as a romantic celebration appeared in Chaucer’s 1382 poem, the Parliament of Fowls. However, it is possible that Chaucer was not referring to February 14. We will never know!

In England, the practice of giving Valentine’s cards was established as early as the 18th century. By the 19th century, cards were being mass-produced and a reduction in postage costs saw a huge increase in the number of cards that were mailed to lucky recipients rather than handed to them. The ability to post cards made it possible to send them anonymously. Valentine’s Day was starting to look a little like the celebration that we know today.

How is Valentine’s Day celebrated in Japan?

Valentine’s Day was not a feature of Japanese culture until the 1930s. The Japanese began to celebrate Valentine’s Day thanks to the commercial awareness of an immigrant.


chocolate Valentine's Day

In 1931, Russian immigrant Fedor Dmitrievich founded Morozoff, a confectionary company based in Kobe. In 1936, the company advertised fancy chocolates as Valentine’s gifts and in so doing, Introduced the concept of Valentine’s Day to Japan. After World War II, Japanese department stores picked up on the idea of marketing chocolates as Valentine’s gifts and the practice of giving chocolates became firmly established. This was a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable for Japanese women to express their romantic feelings to men. Kokuhaku, the act of confessing one’s feelings, was a male privilege. The giving of chocolates on Valentine’s Day gave women an acceptable way to express their feelings and helped to change social norms in Japan.

Women remain the principal gift-givers on Valentine’s Day itself and give chocolates to men but not only as romantic gestures. Women are expected to give chocolates to all the significant men in their lives and the chocolates they give vary according to the nature of the recipient:


giri choco valentine's day

Giri-choco – a gift for male friends, family members or work colleagues. Giri-choco means “obligation chocolate “. It is seen as an expression of gratitude.

Honmei-choco – often handmade treats that are given as romantic gestures to significant others.

Jibun-choco – chocolate that women buy as a treat for themselves.

Tomo-choco – expensive and/or elaborate chocolate creations gifted between women.

Gyaku-choco – “reverse chocolate” given to women by men, but this is uncommon as men are expected to reciprocate Valentine’s gifts with mehonmei choco one month later, on White Day.

What does White Day mean in Japan?

White Day is celebrated on March 14 and wasn’t established until the 1980s. It was the brainchild of the Japanese confectionary industry which campaigned for a “reply day” for men to reciprocate the gifts of chocolate they had received from women. The day was so named because white is associated with innocent love in Japanese culture.

On White Day, men are expected to proffer gifts that boast two or three times the value of those they received on Valentine’s day. Giving only the equivalent of what they have received is thought to be a sign that they wish to end the relationship. The failure to return a gift at all is seen as an act of disdain.

What’s changing about Japanese Valentine’s Day?

chocolate Valentine's Day

Many women are now far from happy about the Valentine’s traditions that have evolved in Japan. They feel pressured into spending huge amounts of money on chocolates for bosses and colleagues, merely to avoid giving offense. Many companies have banned the practice as a result. Women are moving away from giving Giri-Choco and are now more likely to gift themselves Jibun-choco, to gift Tomo-choco to family and friends, or to offer homemade Honmei-choco to their romantic interests.

Japanese men are increasingly ignoring White Day and are gifting on Valentine’s Day instead. Japanese Valentine’s Day will doubtless continue to evolve as attitudes change. The day remains a fiesta of delicious chocolate and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. But there is certainly increasing resistance to the concept of obligation chocolate.

It is easy to see that Valentine’s Day traditions around the world have been inspired and driven by commercial interest. What was originally a Christian feast day has provided the perfect opportunity for diverse industries to promote the giving of their products. Valentine’s Day practices in Japan are different to those in the west. But in both regions, people have been encouraged to spend their hard-earned cash on certain gifts. Like Christmas, Valentine’s Day has become a celebration of spending rather than one of love.

Japanese Valentine's Day

 

 

James Myatt

4 min read

Feb 12

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