Saint Valentine’s Day in Japan is very complicated…

There are hierarchies of giving matched to various types of chocolate and associated pricing. And on top of that, Valentine’s Day takes place across two days, a month apart.

The Japan Anniversary Association predicts this year’s Valentine’s Day market to be worth about 1.23 billion dollars, up 3% on last year.

Where did it all begin?

There are several theories about the origins of Valentine’s Day in Japan, and it seems a few different companies saw the great potential to flog chocolate mercilessly.

One of the first marketing attempts for Valentine’s Day in Japan was at a chocolate stall in Isetan department store in 1958. Although not very successful, Isetan was enough of a trendsetter to make other stores follow suit, and as such are usually credited with ‘starting’ the celebration in Japan. And as usual, rather than a carbon copy of the western Valentine’s Day, there are many distinctly Japanese twists, all of which directly benefit one particular section of society… chocolate manufacturers.

Real Love or Just Obligatory?

Rumoured to be the result of a mistranslation (but probably more likely an opportunistic marketing strategy), women give chocolates to men. Expensive or hand-made chocolates are given to their ‘true love’. This is called ‘honmei choco’ (real love chocolates).

But the spending can’t stop there. Apparently, all their male co-workers and friends also require gifts, lest they feel left out. Cheap chocolates are given, so that no one gets the ‘wrong idea’. These are ‘giri choco’, or ‘obligation chocolates’. No beating around the bush with that name, no feelings here, just cold obligation. Happy Valentine’s Day.

To counteract this obligation, the idea of ‘jibun choco’ (chocolate for yourself) and ‘tomo choco’ (chocolate for your female friends) was also introduced. On the surface these seem like nice developments for women during the celebration. But as their pay check shrinks, I think we know who the real winners are here.

Valentine’s Day Part 2

On March 14th, one month later, men are expected to give back. A marshmallow company drew on the Japanese cultural tradition that gifts should be reciprocated, and ‘White Day’ was invented in 1978. But marshmallows soon got hijacked by… you guessed it, more chocolate.

In many strokes of marketing genius on the part of confectioners, women not only have to buy chocolates for their significant other, but their co-workers, also maybe their friends, then possibly for themselves if all this chocolate is too much temptation. Fast forward a month later and the men who received all these chocolates must reciprocate (and raise the value of the chocolates to be polite). And we all know who’s sitting rubbing their hands with glee at that time of the year. Those pesky chocolate manufacturers!

So why stop at two days? Milk chocolate dominates Valentine’s day and white chocolate on White Day, perhaps April 14th could be dark chocolate’s time to shine.

Black Day, for all the bitter singles out there!