Valentine's Day is observed the world over as a holiday for celebrating love. I know lots of people think it is silly to set aside a day for it, saying that you should celebrate love everyday, but personally I like it. I think we all need a day to step back and appreciate our loved ones. Though the day was originally a Feast Day for Saint Valentine, a martyr who used to perform illegal marriages for Roman soldiers, it was the English High Middle Ages where it first took on the guise of a romantic holiday. Not surprisingly, as it was the heyday of courtly love, this is when giving sweet gifts to your special someone became a tradition.
Today it has turned into an enormous marketing frenzy (trust me, I used to work at a Florist and a artisan chocolate counter). But the general idea, lovers giving each other gifts, has stayed intact all over. The one exception to the rule seems to be Japan, where in true fashion they have adopted and adapted the holiday to their tastes. I've written about Halloween and Christmas, which were introduced after WWII and popularized by companies looking to cash in. Valentine's Day was no different, though it came around a little earlier, finding its way to Japan in 1936 via Morozoff Ltd., a chocolate company out of Kobe. However, it didn't really take off until the 1950s and 60s when other companies picked it up and went wild, having big Valentine's Day sales and promoting heart shaped chocolates.
So what makes Valentine's Day different in Japan? Mostly, who's giving the chocolates. In the West, though both participants usually do something, we tend to think of it as the man's responsibility to spend the big bucks. In Japan, Valentine's Day is the day that women give chocolates or cookies to men, not the other way around. The origin of this unique tradition seems to have come from a translated snafu with the chocolate company who introduced the whole thing. But the explanation most often given seems to be that Japanese women are shy and need a day to express their feelings. This seems to be especially true of Japanese teenagers, who are often depicted in Shojo as blushingly handing a bag of homemade chocolates to their crush.
But if a girl has given you chocolates on Valentine's Day, don't get too excited, it might just be giri-choko, "obligation chocolate". Women on Valentine's Day are expected to give chocolates to their friends, fathers, brothers, co-workers, classmates, teachers, and bosses. This is not a sign of romantic feelings, just being polite. "Obligation chocolate" might sound like a bit of a bummer, but at least it gives people without partners a chance to participate in the holiday. However, if this sounds very lacking in romance, it's okay, because there is also honmei-choko, "true feeling chocolate". How do you tell the difference? Well, if it's handmade, there is a pretty good chance it's honmei-choko.
For this article I found a recipe for making cup chocolates, the most popular way for school girls to make honmei-choko for their crushes. It is extremely easy, just involving melting chocolate and mixing it with milk, then piping it into foil cups, over nuts, rice crackers, or other candies then topping them with decorations. I read that it is common for lots of girls to get together and make these before Valentine's Day. I made them a little early, using milk chocolate, roasted cashews, and peanut butter malt balls, decorating the tops with cake pearls. The whole process took less than a half hour, yet made a nice personal gift. If you'd like to follow suit, the recipe video can be found here.
Well, isn't this all a bit one sided? you might be thinking. Don't worry, the chocolate companies have found a solution, after all, why not tap the other half of the population? In 1978, the very first White Day was celebrated, one month from Valentine's Day, March 14th. After several years of companies campaigning and advertising this holiday, it caught on, becoming the time for men to reciprocate. However, Japanese companies had an even better idea then simply tapping the other half, they made it traditional for men to give gifts three times the value of the chocolates they were given, and that includes giri-choko. The gifts are often things other than chocolate, such as jewelry, accessories, flowers, or even lingerie (if you're an actual couple). This tradition definitely originated in Japan, but it has spread to other countries like South Korea, China, and Taiwan.
We can't fault the Japanese candy companies for taking advantage of this excellent money making opportunity. After all, American companies go absolutely bananas over Valentine's Day. It's no wonder that I know so many girls who think the holiday is tainted, considering how much consumerism is shoved down our throats all through the first half of February. However, I still can't help loving the idea of a day for celebrating the most important feeling in the world. Whether you love your partner, your family, your friends, or your pets, it's sweet to take time to stop and acknowledge it with a word or a gift. I also love the idea of a day that a shy girl can make a batch of delicious chocolates and give them to her crush, silently letting him know how she feels. Then she waits for a month, hoping that he will reciprocate. Though if it doesn't work out, you can always claim that they were just "obligation chocolates".
Until next time, Happy Valentine's Day!
P.S. You know the western graffiti tradition of a heart with an arrow through barring two peoples names? The Japanese equivalent is an umbrella with two names under it. According to my friend who lived in Japan for thirty years, this is because back in the old days, walking under an umbrella together was the closest you could get without being scandalous. Isn't that so sweet?
You can see this in Only Yesterday, the amazing Studio Ghibli movie that is finally being released in America this year!
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