Celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan

Lovingly Made Chocolates and Impractical Magic

By Hilary Keyes
February 12, 2017
Lifestyle, Relationships

The so-called "female arts" of cooking, decorating and witchcraft take center stage when Valentine’s Day rolls around.

If you have been living in Japan for a while now, you might have noticed that the shops here are really on top of the holidays. No sooner do the clocks strike 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 25 than the Christmas trees turn into New Year’s decorations, which then change to ogre masks faster than you can say mamemaki (bean throwing) for setsubun.

But if you regularly shop in places like Loft or Tokyu Hands, you might have noticed another display slowly taking over retail spaces: Valentine’s Day. Rows and rows of gift boxes, wax paper, ribbons and the like in every shade, plus veritable mountains of chocolates, sprinkles and other ingredients to tease over eager crowds of women.

Two kinds of chocolate

Valentine’s is celebrated differently in Japan than in most countries overseas. Here, women prepare chocolates or other sweets for the object of their affection, as well as for the other important people in their lives. Some, like giri choco (obligatory chocolates, the term for chocolates given out of obligation to others) are usually store-bought and, while quite nice, not something to get very excited over. Many women give these to their male co-workers, bosses and even their fathers and brothers.

On the other hand, honmei choco (true love chocolates), are only given to your crush, boyfriend, husband or someone to whom you want to confess your love. These tend to be home-made, but can also be purchased at luxury chocolate shops, high-end department stores or even imported.

You may be asking yourself: what do the men do in return? Well, you’ll have to wait until next month to see a return — specifically Mar. 14, or White Day. It can be a nerve-wracking wait if you aren’t careful.

Coming from a country where Valentine’s Day is a reciprocal holiday, I was at first appalled by this practice. After having lived here for so long though, I do see the appeal. Especially after having made more Japanese female friends. It’s fun to really get creative and put effort into making something for someone that you love, or to whom you want to express your feelings — in fact,  it can be quite therapeutic (as long as the feelings are mutual).

Cooking, decorating and… witchcraft?

Whether you’re a gourmet chef with quality, Michelin-star ingredients or someone who can scald water, there are honmei choco recipes and kits aplenty. Wherever you look from mid-January onward, cacao is front and center. Cooking is the relatively easy part.

Decorating is a slightly harder step to master; you want the perfect balance of form and function for your perfectly prepared sweets. Your darling’s favorite colors, the appropriate size parcel and a balance between your “feminine senses” and their “machismo” needs to be accomplished. That’s a tall order for some bits of paper, ribbon and foil to handle!

This brings us to the third — and most fascinating — part: witchcraft. Whether you believe in it or not, in recent years many Japanese women seem to have resorted to the magic arts (of both white and black varieties) in order to give their home-made bon bons that extra edge. I’m not exaggerating: women that I know — and men who have felt confident enough to share their experiences with me — have shown me:

  • chopped up hairs
  • herbal love potions
  • blood (!)
  • torn up pieces of fortunes from love shrines

These are mixed into various desserts and chocolate items. Unsanitary and disgusting as it may be, these were prepared with the purest hope of falling in love or keeping someone’s love, which is somehow sweet. Except for the blood part. That was horrifying.

Slavish displays of affection: a cautionary tale

If the gentleman you have been seeing up until now is suddenly asking a lot of questions about what you’re doing for him for Valentine’s Day or acting more affectionate than usual, there are two possible reasons for his behavior:

  1. He just really likes Valentine’s Day and can’t wait to see what you — someone who is not Japanese and therefore thinks outside of what he might expect of the holiday — will make him.
  2. You’re dating what I call a “Quarter Man” — those commitment-phobic men who stick around in a relationship for about three months in order to reap the benefits of holidays while avoiding any during times when women want something in return (so no White Day or April “new spring together forever” plans), plotting a mad dash for freedom from the 15th of the month onwards —  storing away your affection like a gold-hoarding dragon in order to get him through his single period before the summer dating season starts.

In the first case: go ahead and blow his mind! Go all out, do whatever you want to impress your man and you will be pleasantly surprised next month. You can usually tell this is the case by paying attention to the details: has he always had a sweet tooth? Does he talk about Valentine’s Day specifically, rather than just what he wants? Does he ask about the holiday in your own country? If it’s equally about you and his quest for a sugar high, then you needn’t worry too much.

In the second case: I’m sorry. You don’t deserve that and he’s a nasty, vile creature that is beneath someone as lovely as you are. No matter what you do, he won’t stick around because he doesn’t want to reciprocate come White Day. It’s not your fault for falling for someone like that. I’ve done it, women smarter than me have done it, it happens. Just don’t let it make you bitter.

If you are single this Valentine’s Day, I strongly recommend heading to your nearest variety goods shop or department store and raiding their chocolate selection, getting a nice bottle of your plonk of choice and binge-watching your favorite movies or TV shows alone or with some like-minded friends — celebrate Galentine’s instead!

Do you have any special plans, flashbacks of strange encounters or tips and advices for women in Japan on Valentine’s Day? If so, let us know in the comments below!