I don’t consider myself to be a Valentine’s scrooge — after all, aggressively single blackhearts can be just about as irritating as that girl in a heart-covered sweater daydreaming aloud about rose petals on the bed. But, like a lot of women, single or attached, I've found that the holiday’s saccharine sentimentality and blatant commerciality — plus the near-constant bombardment with chocolate when I’m desperately clinging to the last vestiges of my New Year’s resolution re: sugar — have occasionally made a hater out of me. That said, the past year and a half that I’ve been living in Japan (where Valentine’s Day has been thoroughly embraced) have made me think that Barentain Dei, as it’s rendered in Japanese, is in some ways even more of an annual annoyance than the Western original. The biggest difference between Japanese and American Valentine’s Day is that in Japan (feminist trigger warning), men expect to be showered with gifts by women — and never the other way around. Like most imported Western holiday traditions, the concept of giving sweets to your sweetheart on February 14 was introduced to Japan via an advertising campaign, and then warped by local tastes until it developed its own customs. (Hence, it’s just not Christmas in Japan without a bucket of KFC.) In the case of V-Day, a 1958 ad by the Mary Chocolate Company christened the previously unknown holiday as “a once-in-a-year day when women can confess their love."
My main beef with Western Valentine’s Day is its message that we only need one day per year to celebrate love. (And, if that date happens to coincide with your singledom — or your significant other doesn’t participate enthusiastically enough — then, well, NO ONE LOVES YOU.) In the same vein, it seems a little lame to me that February 14 is marketed in Japan as the one day when it’s cool for ladies to actually tell guys how they feel about them — because that perpetuates the message that they should keep those pesky desires to themselves for the other 364 days of the year.
But, many Japanese women see it differently: For those who hesitate to share their feelings, a Japanese friend told me, Valentine’s Day can actually be the most powerful day of the year. And, in a culture that even today values emotional restraint to the point where it’s not common for married couples to say, “I love you,” women jumped at Mary Chocolate’s green light to express their inner ardor. The one-sidedness of the tradition has stuck, and Cupid’s arrow has been lodged in the pocketbooks of Japanese women ever since. Flash forward 50 years, and Japan is cuckoo for cocoa. American Valentine mainstays like long-stemmed roses, conversation heart candies, and crotchless panties are mostly ignored in favor of luxuriously wrapped (and luxuriously priced) boxes of chocolate. In fact, J-shoppers make up the largest market for chocolate in Asia. Even though I live in a rural town without big department stores, the Valentine’s spectacle is inescapable — albeit with its own Japanese spin.
I’ve always found the pressure of trying to engineer the perfect romantic gesture for my significant other to be anxiety-inducing — until I considered the fact that a Japanese woman’s Valentine’s obligations extend way beyond her boyfriend, to her family members and even coworkers. A survey by confectionery giant Glico found that the average young Japanese woman doles out chocolate to more than 10 people.
First, there’s honmei choco (“true feeling” chocolate), which is reserved for that special someone and should be the most expensive. But, on top of that, chocolate makers have concocted more reasons for women to spend money. It’s now common for girls to treat their gal pals to tomo choco (“friend chocolate”), and buy famili choco (“family chocolate”) for relatives. The most alien choco type to me as an American, though, is giri choco. That’s “obligation” chocolate, which female office workers are pretty much expected to present to their male coworkers. Also, under the banner of giri choco is sewa choco (“respect” chocolate), which is given to one’s superiors — because apparently leaving a red-wrapped box on your boss’s desk doesn’t raise eyebrows the way it would in the U.S. That’s probably due to the fact that Japanese Valentine’s Day has basically left its amorous connotations as far in the dust as the American version has left poor, old St. Valentine. Call it a symptom of Japan’s supposedly growing aversion to relationships, or just the same soul-sucking result of commercialization that the American holiday has suffered, but the romance behind the original Japanese Valentine’s Day has mostly been replaced by a codified and etiquette-ized exchange. Whereas my cultural upbringing has made me see compulsory generosity as meaningless and even brown-nosing, giri is a huge part of the social fabric of Japan, where gift-giving is a national obsession and at-work harmony is paramount.
Many women say they welcome the chance to show their gratitude to their colleagues through chocolate. But, when giving becomes giri, it can be considered churlish not to show up with chocolate in hand on February 14. And, just because giri choco is now the norm doesn’t mean that there isn’t resentment among women who feel obligated to spend money on the sweet-toothed guy who brings them their mail. “I don’t want to give chocolate to someone I don’t like,” one friend told me — putting it more delicately than another, who simply called the holiday a pain in the ass. Some female employees look forward to years when the holiday falls on a weekend. In fact, Time reported that 70% of women say they’d rather opt out of giri choco, but another survey found that about half of women do end up shelling out for their coworkers and bosses because they say it will get them a better evaluation at the company. Besides the fact that I really like my coworkers, I’ll take any excuse to bake, so personally I’m happy to bring in homemade sweets for my staffroom — which is a route that more and more Japanese women are taking in order to save money. (Although, admittedly, staying up all night to make a couple dozen one-bite brownies isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of a great trade-off.) And, though I’ve been known to complain that Western Valentine’s Day is all about money, I’m starting to see Americans as positively tight-fisted: Of the 78% of Japanese women who do buy chocolate every V-day, many will spend upwards of $150.
It might seem that for dudes, Valentine's pressure is 100% off. But, before you unleash your pent-up Valentine’s rage against the Land of the Rising Sun, there are two only-in-Japan Valentine’s Day traditions that might prevent the holiday from completely putting out your girl-power fire. The first is White Day, a sort of Valentine’s Day Part 2, celebrated exactly one month later. White Day exists because it didn’t take long for Big Chocolate to realize that they were missing out on the half of the market with a penis — and, so, in 1978 they created another Hallmark holiday for Japan. On White Day, men are expected to give a white-themed okaeshi, or return gift, to every lady who delivered on Valentine’s Day. Plus, according to custom, a real man should pony up a gift that costs two to three times the amount spent on him. (This practice, of course, adds another layer to the Valentine’s angst, because, as a friend told me, it can make you feel uncomfortable to give giri choco knowing that the guy will feel like he has to spend even more money on you.) Originally, marshmallows were the White Day gift de rigueur, but these days white chocolate has come into fashion — because no one wants $20 worth of marshmallows. The real saving grace of Japanese Valentine’s Day, though, is a new trend in choco — and one that I can really get behind. It’s called jibun choco, and the Japanese media reports that of all the choco, it’s the one that women these days are spending the really big bucks on. Jibun means “myself,” so jibun choco is fancy chocolate that women buy exclusively to reward themselves for all their hard Valentine’s work. And, that’s a Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition that I’d definitely like to bring back to the States. For now, J-ladies: #treatyoself.