You might be wondering why we are discussing Valentine’s Day when it’s supposed to be about working in Japan. Truth is, as many events in Japan, even this holiday is somehow linked to work.
In the West, it’s a day for giving your lover or partner a gift and showing your love. In Japan, when we think of Valentine’s Day, we think of three things: chocolate, from women to men (and not the other way round) and making a receiver’s list.
How Valentine’s Day was localized in Japan
Valentine’s Day is just one example of how Western traditions have adapted to existing Japanese codes and have become part of the culture.
Post War Japan was hungry for Western ideas. In the case of Valentine’s Day, it didn’t only represent an individualistic ideal (as opposed to community ideals, where the good of the group prevails over the individual) but also the western idea of romantic love (rennai kekkon – love marriage – as opposed to miai kekkon – arranged marriage).
Confessing your feelings for someone (hokuhaku) was considered a radical act and taboo. Valentine’s Day translated into the day it was acceptable for women to take a risk and confess their feelings.
How it started
A Japanese chocolate maker, Mary Chocolate, learned about how Valentine’s Day was celebrated in the West, about the chocolates, the cards, and the flowers, and saw a great business opportunity.
When trying it out in Japan, the first reaction from the public wasn’t great, but they didn’t give up: Japanese chocolate brands joined forces with famous department stores and it increasingly gained in popularity.
You can see in ads that initially there was some confusion as to whom to give the chocolates. Some department stores would say, lovers, mothers, admired teachers, women only. Others would suggest women give chocolates to men, as Mary Chocolate did. The only clear idea was that it should be about chocolate.
By the 70’s, they had decided that it exclusively for women to give to men, in part due to the fact that Japanese women have traditionally been the buyers of sweets and were, therefore, the more obvious target of these ads.
We can agree that chocolate makers’ believed it was a great business opportunity, but it also affected the way women and men interacted.
Making lists: giri choco
Of course, Valentine’s Day found its way into the Japanese office. Women do not only give chocolates to their lovers or partners (what is called honmei choco), they will also distribute some to the men in their offices (giri choco). Giri choco translates to obligation chocolate, where no romantic feelings are involved. These chocolates are meant for colleagues, bosses and male friends and are understood as an expression of gratitude.
Now, what about men giving to women? On White Day, exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, men are supposed to give return gifts to women who offered them chocolate, and usually spending twice the price.
Giving chocolates to colleagues and bosses seemed like contributing in creating a harmonious working environment. It is also a legitimate way of showing approval or grievance, during one day. But for some, this is more of an additional burden to think of at work and somewhat unsettling.
Some women find themselves buying chocolate because they feel they are expected to and worry about appearing even-handed by buying something for everyone. In response to this, some managers publicly encourage women to not buy any giri choco. Also, this year, Godiva, the Belgian chocolate maker, ran a full-page ad in one of the most popular financial publication calling women to stop buying giri choco.
At WOVN.io, we don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day. We’ll be adding a little Valentine touch to our Lunar New Year party this Friday. No hassle 😉
Working in Japan is a monthly series delivered by WOVN.io where we discuss surprising workplace customs. For comments or questions, please contact us here.