February 14 is Saint Valentine’s Day, a day of celebration for lovers worldwide. But the way the day is celebrated in Japan is rather unique by world standards. While men usually give gifts to women in the West, Japanese do exactly the other way around. Women give gifts to men, in most cases chocolate. Moreover, Japanese women have coined their own styles of presenting their gifts, which are different from the celebration’s original purport. Popular among them are giri-choco (literally meaning obligation chocolate) and tomo-choco (chocolate friends give each other). Valentine’s Day has become a peculiar culture in Japan.
The origin of Valentine’s Day is said to be the day when Saint Valentinus (Valentine) was executed in the 3rd century A.D. in ancient Rome. Emperor Claudius II imprisoned and beheaded him on February 14 for performing weddings for soldiers who were then forbidden to marry to prevent degradation of morale. It happened to be the feast day of Juno, the goddess of marriage and home. Legend says this was how Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated on that particular day. However, its authenticity is uncertain as some people say it was fabricated by the Church.
Sales promotion campaigns by confectionery makers gave an impetus to the spread of Valentine’s Day among Japanese people in the 50’s and 60’s. Morozoff Ltd. was the first to propose giving chocolate on Valentine’s Day in Japan. In 1931, the Kobe firm put an advertisement in the Japan Advertiser, the English newspaper published in Yokohama. It read: "For your Valentine, make a present of Morozoff's fancy box chocolates." The practice grew gradually popular among younger generations later as other confectionery companies like Morinaga & Co. and Fujiya Ltd. jumped on the bandwagon. It was during the 70’s that Valentine’s Day came to stay as it does today as an occasion for women to give chocolate to men to confess their love. That was when the woman’s liberation movement begun to gain momentum across the world, calling for liberation of women from social injustice and gender inequality. The movement might have encouraged more women to choose (confess love to) men instead of waiting to be chosen by men.
In the 80’s, Valentine’s Day in Japan started to take on a new aspect with the emergence of giri-choco. The practice was obviously related to the women’s social advancement that became more prominent in those days since giri-choco was often given out of courtesy to their male bosses and colleagues at work. On the other hand, however, the popularity of giri-choco might have indicated that women and men were still not equal at work.
In the 2000’s, the practice of exchanging tomo-choco became popular especially among junior and senior high school girls. More recently, some companies have been promoting gyaku-choco (reverse chocolate), meaning chocolate given to women by men on Valentine’s Day. Fewer women now seem to confess their love on this day. A recent online poll conducted by Rakuten shows that most women give chocolate to their father, husband or son. Japanese women seeking careers have tremendously increased in number and there has been much progress in gender equalization in the past decades. Now some are even called nikushoku-jyoshi (carnivore women), a moniker given to women who aggressively seek for love. Today, Valentine’s Day as a day of confession may no longer be necessary for women.
Written by: Ayako Shimatani