St Valentine’s Day in Japan

13 February 2010

Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, and in Japan it’s a big deal. However, the rituals of gift-giving on this day, and the gendered nature of the day in Japan make it totally different from the west.

In most western countries, mutual gift-giving takes place between couples, as well as for a single person to woo someone to become his or her Valentine. While various items may be given or exchanged as a token, a card is almost always obligatory. Usually, but not exclusively, it’s the male partner who is expected to make a bigger effort in a heterosexual relationship.

In Japan, St Valnetine’s Day is associated with gendered and controlled gift-giving in which women declare their affection to (unsuspecting or expecting) men. This is a structured day in which gender roles are somewhat reversed: the social convention is (or was) that, in most cases, it’s the men who have to make the first step, but that rule is dispensed with on 14 February. Women can initiate the courting ritual.

There is a common currency of gift given on this day in Japan: chocolate. But the chocolate is a code, with many hidden meanings. This code is usually understood between the giver and the recipient, but sometimes not, which often end in tragedy or comedy, depending on the personalities involved and circumstances.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of chocolate, distinguished by function: honmei and giri. The honmei chocolate is the one that a woman gives to a man whom she really likes as a token of her affection, and especially when the female giver and the male recipient are not in a relationship. Chocolate in this case may be quite expensive or hand-made. Giri is a difficult word and concept to translate into English. However in the context of St Valentine’s Day gift giving, these giri chocolates (known as giri choko) are given to classmates, colleagues and line-managers. These are not necessarily signs of personal affection, but their purpose is to consolidate social, not romantic or personal, relationship.

While the giver and the recipient usually understand whether the choclate is honmei or giri as mentioned above, the distinction can be sometimes hard to make. It offers a fascinating room for misunderstanding and plausible deniability. The man who receives a giri choko may mistake it for honmei, and woman can deny that a honmei chocolate was such, if things become awkward, but she can claim in fact it was a giri choko.

This act of gift-giving naturally requires an act of reciprocation, and there’s a specific date in Japan called the White Day, 14 March. The roles are reversed, in which men give women candies or white chocolate. This is an act of reciprocation, and for that reason does not come with a huge amount of emotional baggage. Men who received giri choko must give gift, usually of higher monetary value, to the women who gave them chocoloate on St Valentine’s Day. If the chocolate was honmei and no relationship blossomed out of it, a reciprocal gift is expected.

St Valentine’s Day is therefore an extremely interesting day for anyone studying Japanese society, gendered space and time, and the culture of gift exchange.