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Valentine's Day in Japan; You'd Better Read This

In my previous article, i mentioned how Christmas here in Japan could be a puzzling experience as it finally seems closer than our Valentine's Day than anything else. You may then have wondered  how Feb 14th in Japan looks like. As usual with this country, nothing is exactly going to be as expected  ... and that's exactly why we love it (๑>ᴗ<๑)


Photo by CoCrea /CC

Let's start with a quick reminder about Japanese culture, though must of you may actually know it: the concept of "mutual obligation", coming from feudal time, is still deeply rooted in modern Japanese society. This has lead to a complex custom of gift offering closely linked to social duty and status. That's why you will often see people exchanging present at every single event through the year. You'd think that would influence Valentine's day and you are totally ... right!   

A typical chocolate box gift for Valentine's
Photo by Norio Nakayama / CC

I had to experience it the hard way. Back when i was still a student at the university, desperately trying to wrap my head around Kanji and grammar and figure how to practice it, me and my classmates had a lot of opportunities to meet Japanese exchange students who were coming to learn french language and culture.  Along the months we got to develop great friendships with them, and on a clearly day in the first weeks of february i received a cute gift from a Japanese girl. That was a nice box of chocolate with a little note inside it : "Happy Valentine's Day!".

Can you figure out what kind of feelings it brought me? Unfortunately it wouldn't last long as i slowly came to realize she'd offer similar boxes to many of my friends the very same day! My lack of knowledges about cultural differences was, again, the root of a laughable misunderstanding.


Bento&Chocolat, a beautiful love story
Photo par Naoko Oikawa / CC

Indeed, i hadn't gone to Japan yet and couldn't imagine what was going on. Unlike the West, young Japanese ladies and women experience a very stressful (well, i am not saying it is not for you ladies, don't quote me on that (^^)) time in early February. Not only do they have to look for a suited present for their beloved one; they also must find gift for their teammates, female friends and families. Therefore it isn't unusual to spend more than 200$ to match the expectation of that dozen (sometime even more) of people !  

Photo by Esalota / CC 

And there is only one thing that will satisfy them: a great box of delicious chocolate. Noone can tell for sure but it seems that the habit of offering chocolate and only chocolate for Valentine's  traced back to the 50's. Oh, don't think that makes the shopping easier: there are several level of gifts, ranked by price, and depending on the link you have with the concerned person. 

First are the giri chocogiri means "obligation", so these kinds of choco are for workmates and don't cost more than an hundred yens. They are purely formal present that women give to the people they connect with at work. Next come the tomo ("friend") choco, up to one or two thousands yen (15-20$) for their female friends. In february, most of the girls also buy similar chocolate boxes for their family or even themselves.  


A couple sending each other text message
Photo by Dlisbona / CC

And that's not before having make sure every single obligation is fulfilled that she can start to think about the main purpose of the event: the Coffret collector, Honmei (本命 "favorite") choco. It comes in a heart-shaped box which can be quite expensive, and they are only given to lovers or as a love declaration. Have you ever received one?


The Ultimate Gift : Honmei Choko
Photo by Sekikos / CC

Got it? rather than a day for lovers it would be more accurate to rename Valentine's day as "Chocolate Day". (^^) Most of department stores and galleries plan the event months away the chocolate rush. It is indeed said that chocolate sellers make a substantial part of their annual benefice at this time ... Of course Love is priceless but to declare it may at least cost you a bag of little chocolate sweets. (´ ▽`).。

If you come by Kyoto in february, here are the place you should go to buy chocolate and enjoy that unique atmosphere: Isetan (they even have a Salon de Chocolat at that time) and Loft (it's usually crowed with girls looking for the best present so you may want to avoid the rush hours) Galleries, the famous Mary's shop (at Kawaramachi shijo) and Pierre Hermé (his first Kyoto shop has just opened inside the new Ritz-Carlton complex near the Kamogawa river!).

So after reading all this article, it may sound like guys have it really easy in Japan, receiving tons of chocolate from all their female relatives without having to strive for the best present to offer, yet don't be fooled: this is just a one month deferment. On the 14th of March, they will have to return an even bigger present (this is really the important point) for the so-called "White Day"! Believe me, I have already started to put money aside ... (・_-。 )

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