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Valentine's Day in Japan

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For those of us with a cynical streak or, dare I say it, a bitter taste when it comes to all things lovey dovey, Valentine’s day often feels a bit of a drag. Well, at least you (probably) don’t live in Japan, where everything is bigger, brighter and more extravagant. From a country that brings you panty vending machines and computer generated Pop idols, it goes without saying that Japanese corporations will use any excuse to sell sell sell!

The Japanese are as influenced by the West as we are by the East, so you can often see Western traditions and holidays trickling into their culture. Naturally good businessmen, Japanese companies and brands have altered and adapted any Western holiday that has made its way over. Valentine’s Day is possibly one of the best examples.

In 1936, the Japanese confectionary and cake company Morozoff Ltd ran an advertisement aimed at foreigners living in Japan, encouraging them to buy products for the 14th February. Later in 1953 it began to promote heart-shaped chocolates, which served as a eureka moment for the company’s competitors.

The Western tradition, however, was slightly lost in translation. Instead of Valentine’s Day serving as a day for both parties in a relationship to buy each other cards, chocolate or flowers, in Japan it is all down to the ladies. It is said that a typo in one of the chocolate adverts led to the custom that only women give chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day (don’t fret, the men do have their chance, as I’ll explain later!).

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Deeply ingrained in Japanese culture is the obligation to thank others who have done them a favour, which is where the concept of “Giri-choco” (obligatory chocolate) stems from. It became common practice for women to give all the men in their lives Giri chocolate, including co-workers, friends and bosses. The poor fella that doesn’t receive any chocolate feels embarrassed, so there are even cheaper chocolates for the co-worker that nobody likes – “chō-giri choko” (ultra-obligatory chocolates)!

Chocs for that special man is a whole other board game, and needs to be a whole step up from the cheaper Giri-choco. These are called “Honmei-choco” (favourite chocolate) and are either more expensive or prepared by hand by the lady, so he better bloody well appreciate it. More recently, many young Japanese women have begun exchanging chocolate with their female friends on Valentine’s Day, known as “tomo-choco” (friend chocolate). Needless to say, that’s a hell of a lot of chocolate.

Thanks to another set of clever marketing gurus, a month later on the 14th March, men are expected to shower their ladies with gifts at least two or three times more valuable than what they received. In the 1980s the Japanese National Confectionary Industry Association launched a “reply day”, which became known as “White Day”, after the colour of the chocolates given. No matter what the excuse, if a man doesn’t return a gift then he is perceived as placing himself in a position of superiority, while returning a present of equal value equates to one of those “I think we should go on a break” text messages.

You would think that this intense amount of spending over a space of 2 months would be enough for the Japanese corporations; after all they do make half their annual earnings during this time. But no, never ones for being subtle, the brands have err... almost got it correct in Western terms, by encouraging men to buy women chocolate on Valentine’s day also. A survey by confectioner Morinaga, which is probably just a little bit forced, shows that 90.8% of Japanese women would also like to receive a gift on the 14th Feb.

So what do they do? Reverse chocolate of course! Never ones for subtleties, the confectionary companies have started producing chocolate in packaging featuring backwards text. The cherry on the cake: the slogan reads “This year, give in reverse”.