A Valentine’s Chocolate Conspiracy

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On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give the men in their lives honmei or giri choco. Can you guess which is which?

By KAZUKO MONOBE

Japan consists of 6,852 islands and only 430 are inhabited. On the world map, it is a group of islands in the northern part of the Pacific, isolated and remote from the rest of the world.

Since there was not much influence from outside of Japan, she reared her own unique culture. It is somewhat like Galapagos Islands, which developed unique species of fauna and flora.

Since the dawn of its history, Japanese people have been fascinated with the unseen world beyond the vast ocean. They felt anything that drifted to Japan shores was mysterious and precious.

Even in this day of instant communication anywhere on the globe, they take in foreign ideas, customs, materials and languages.

However, once they take in those ideas, they right away start changing those to fit into the uniquely Japanese lifestyle. The end results are quite different from the originals.

For instance, on Valentine’s Day, girls, not men, must give chocolates to the men in their lives. He could be the one she secretly has a crush on or her boyfriend or her husband. Men don’t have to go out and buy flowers or chocolates for their girls. Why men are on the receiving end is a puzzle to anyone.

In the workplace, girls feel they can’t single out just one man in front of other men. The men who don’t receive Valentine’s gifts might feel left out or they might lose face. The result: she gives Valentine’s gifts to all the men in her workplace.

Harmony in human relationships is a virtue in Japan. It’s only natural that she wants to give her special man something to show her love. She might try making chocolates in her tiny kitchen or she might buy some expensive chocolate she can barely afford for her honmei, a real intended. She gives it to him when nobody is around.

Valentine’s Day gifts she has to give out of obligation are called giri-choco, obligatory chocolates. However when it comes to giri-choco, she tries to buy something that looks great, but is actually quite cheap. Her heart is not in it. Besides, she has to buy one for each male co-worker.

Around Valentine’s Day, every department store and every neighborhood convenience store stocks up to the brim with chocolates in various sizes and prices, all wrapped up beautifully.

My sister Yoshiko worked for 40 years as a secretary to president of a big printing company in Japan. She told me that on Valentine’s Day, all male workers — from executives to a mere clerk — displayed the small, not-so-expensive-looking chocolates they received on their desks. Those gifts looked suspiciously like giri-choco. She couldn’t help but chuckle when she noticed that men kept rearranging the pile of chocolates to make it appear bigger.

Recently, in some cases, all girls in the office chip in to buy a big box of giri-choco for all the men in the office, which is less hassle and less expensive for the girls.

The shrewd businessmen weren’t contented with just creating the new Valentine’s Day tradition that a girl must give chocolates to her honmei and many giri-choco for non-honmei. In 1970, an old, established Japanese pastry shop called Ishimura Banseidoh started selling sweets made from marshmallows as a return gift for men who received Valentine’s Day gifts.

Right away, other sweet shops followed the practice. In 1980, the National Sweet Association officially declared March 14 as White Day, Okaeshi no Hi, the day to return the favor. Why they named it White Day is a puzzle to anyone. This has spread to the rest of Japan like wildfire. Reciprocity is a virtue in Japan.

Now, this new tradition is spreading to China, Korea, and Taiwan. Do you think it will spread to America? I don’t think so.

Kazuko Monobe immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1956. In 1964, she became a U.S. citizen. She earned a B.S. degree, summa cum laude, in Microbiology and other awards from Weber State University (Utah) in 1974. She earned an M.S. degree in Nutrition and Food Science from Utah State University in 1976. She is now retired and lives with her husband in Southern California. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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