Valentine's Day is indeed a thing in Japan—or barentaindee, as it is pronounced there. But the holiday, which traces its roots in the West to a liturgical celebration of a Christian saint—has its own spin in the Land of the Rising Sun, where it has become a mash-up of Western and newfangled traditions.
The typical chocolates traded on the Japanese version of the holiday have nothing to do with wagashi or mochi or other traditional treats. Instead, they are Western-style truffles—more akin to the stuff in a Whitman's Sampler than to anything eaten in the Edo Period. So why isn't mochi, the iconic treat, ubiquitous on countless other Japanese holidays and special occasions, given on Valentine's Day? After all, Japanese tradition dictates that because mochi is difficult to make, requiring pounding and manipulating for several hours, it is best made with a partner—preferably someone you are in a strong relationship with.
Tomoko Kato, who runs Patisserie Tomoko in Brooklyn, New York and previously worked at Bouley and Le Bernardin, is known for her hybrid desserts, which combine French techniques with Japanese flavors. She says neighborhood pastry shops are in fact "as popular as bodegas" in Japan's cities, and that Japanese people do love their mochi. But, she says, Valentine's Day in Japan is pretty much reserved for the giving of Westernized chocolate.
Brian Kito, the current operator of Los Angeles's 113-year-old Fugetsu-Do, says that although younger people seem to be more interested in mochi over the last couple of decades, he rarely sees Japanese-Americans buying mochi for Valentine's Day. Fugetsu-Do makes pink-colored mochi with hearts drawn on them for Valentine's Day, but most Japanese-Americans he encounters still prefer chocolate.
As it turns out, it should be no surprise that on Valentine's Day, the Japanese eat Western-style truffles. According to a Yale report, the holiday became popular after the President of the Mary Chocolate Company in Japan got a letter from a friend in France stating, "There is a holiday called Valentine's Day in this country, and people confess love through presenting flowers, cards, and chocolate."
Eager not to let an opportunity to sell chocolate pass it by, the Mary Chocolate Company ran an advertisement in 1958 that promoted February 14 as "a once-in-a-year day when women can confess their love." This advertisement—which placed the onus of the gift-giving on women—is thought to be a possible botched translation of the earlier letter, substituting the word "women" for "people." Error or not, a holiday was born.
By the 1960s, the giving of chocolate on February 14 was a custom in Japan. And the gender twist lives on. To this day, women are expected to buy and give chocolates to men.
The Sadie Hawkins aspect of the holiday—where women take the initiative—is one of the few times when women in Japan, a largely underappreciated group, take the bull by the horns in gender relations, so to speak. Although women have a hard time moving up the corporate ladder in Japan and are expected to display, according to the Yale report, "restraint, reserve, and inhibition of self-expression" at home, Valentine's Day allows them to be the aggressors when it comes to buying and doling out the chocolates.
But the holiday is not without its downside for women. According to another study, 78 percent of women in Japan buy chocolates on Valentine's Day, and many spend as much as $150 on the holiday. Cards and other gifts are not traditionally given.
And the list of recipients who expect a gift is extensive. First there's honmei-choco ("true feeling chocolate"), given to boyfriends or husbands or secret paramours. Then there's tomo choco ("friend chocolate"), famili choco ("family chocolate"), and perhaps the most galling of all chocolates: giri choco, which means "obligation" chocolate. Giri choco is what female office workers are expected to gift their male coworkers with—although some offices are starting to ban the practice. Then there's sewa choco ("respect" chocolate), given to one's superiors and, finally, Jibun choco, the only unquestionable chocolate; women buy it just for themselves.
All this has Japanese women saying they'd rather not participate, but they feel compelled to do so. Time reported that 70 percent of women say they'd rather opt out of giri choco. Still, many women feel that if they didn't deliver the goods, their work evaluations might suffer.
To the men out there who are feeling that being the recipient of all this chocolate sounds pretty good, hold on. In 1978, the National Confectionery Industry Association of Japan saw an opportunity for what it called an "answer day" to Valentine's Day. Think of it as a payback day when men get to return the favor—to the magnitude of two to three times—a month later.
On White Day—March 14—men in Japan are supposed to give white-themed okaeshi, or return gifts, to every woman who gave them chocolate on Valentine's Day. Marshmallows are sometimes given, but white chocolate is most popular. The rule is sanbai gaeshi; this means the gift should be triple the value of the original.
So, Valentine's Day in Japan is an example of a Western holiday that has taken a few twists in translation, adding a gender-role shakeup that is completely foreign to the way the holiday is celebrated in the rest of the world. But one thing is the same: it's the same uninspired boxed chocolate that everyone is giving.