It isn’t very long after the Christmas decorations have been taken down that retailers fill their shelves and window displays with Valentine’s Day related items. On February 14th, across the U.S. and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between lovers, all in the name of Saint Valentine. But who is Saint Valentine and how did this tradition come about?
Although the story of Saint Valentine remains somewhat inconsistent, it is commonly believed that he was a priest who lived during the third century and performed marriages for young soldiers in secret. You see, Emperor Claudius II of Rome had decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families and outlawed marriage for young men. When Saint Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. It is believed that Saint Valentine was executed on February 14th and that this celebration between lovers came about as a way to honor him.
Regardless of what you believe the origin of Valentine’s Day to be, you have to agree that over the years, it has become a huge commercially driven event. In Japan, it is no different, although the customs do differ greatly than the ones observed elsewhere in the world.
In Japan, only women give chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day and the men reciprocate on White Day, which is celebrated on March 14th. It is said that the custom was made popular by a chocolate company named Mary Chocolate Company, Ltd. (http://www.mary.co.jp/) in the late 1950s who began advertising Valentine’s Day as “the only day of the year a woman professes her love through presenting chocolate”. Capitalizing on the Japanese feelings of obligation, the chocolate business in Japan has grown to a $4 billion (US) a year industry thanks to campaigns such as “Giri-choko (obligation chocolate),” “”Honmei-choko (true love chocolate),” and the recently added “Gyaku-choco (reverse chocolate”) and “Tomo-choco (friendship chocolate).”
It was originally thought that Japanese women were too shy to express their love therefore the idea of presenting chocolates on Valentine’s Day took root and grew in popularity. But nowadays, a woman does not only buy chocolates for the man she admires (Honmei-choko), she is also obligated to present chocolates to her boss, colleagues or male friends that she has no romantic interest in, just for the sake of friendship or gratitude (Giri-chocko). As a matter of fact, it isn’t unusual for women to purchase 20-30 boxes of Giri-choco to hand out. Some women even prefer to make their own chocolates to give away, especially when it comes to the Honmei-choco variety, so chocolate making supplies and tools also enjoy a surge in sales this time of year!
The savvy chocolate companies have taken this tradition further and have now introduced the concept of Gyaku-choco where the men give chocolates to women on February 14th and Tomo-choco where women give their girlfriends chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Let’s not forget “White Day” which came into existence in 1980. Observed on March 14th, exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, men, who received gifts of chocolate from their love interests, friends and co-workers, have the chance to return the favor by giving the women a more expensive box of chocolate or confectionary. The gifts of chocolate that the men present generally come in white boxes. It merits mentioning that where women have traditionally only presented their love interests with chocolate, some men have gone a step further and presented their girlfriends or wives with more expensive and elaborate gifts, as long as they are white in color. These include flowers, accessories, lingerie, perfume and even jewelry.
Elaborate displays are set up in popular department stores such as Mitsukoshi and Isetan starting in January and running through February 14th. Imported and domestic chocolates can also be found in grocery stores and convenience stores around the country. It is said that the chocolate manufacturers make half of their annual profit during this time of year.
Like Christmas, the Japanese have taken Valentine’s Day and made it their own with their own unique customs. Further, White Day is now observed in South Korea, Taiwan and China too.