Fact#10. Japanese Valentine Day: “Giri-choco” vs. “Honmei-choco”?


Bishop: JinK-san, I have a problem…

JinK: What’s that?

Bishop: Well, you know how today is Valentine’s Day.

JinK: Yes… did you get any chocolate?

Bishop: I did, but not from my wife. I got chocolates from one of my female co-workers today.

I’m trying to think about where I could hide them… I don’t want my wife to get jealous.

JinK: Bishop-san, don’t you know about Valentines Day in Japan?

Bishop: What do you mean?

JinK: In Japan it’s tradition for women to give men chocolates on Valentine’s Day,

not the other way around. Furthermore, it’s a much more platonic gesture –

more about sending someone a token of thanks. It doesn’t mean that

someone is romantically interested in you.  Especially chocolates you receive at work.

Bishop: I see… so Valentine’s Day is not romantic in Japan? That seems odd…

JinK: That’s right. Actually, there are two types of chocolates given on Valentine’s Day.

The majority are “giri-choco” or chocolates that are given as a courtesy –

a sort of thank-you gift to a boss or colleague who has helped you out a lot.

Bishop: What is “giri?”

JinK: The English-Japanese dictionary says “obligation” but that doesn’t quite

capture the meaning. The character “gi” by itself means justice,

and “ri” itself means reason, so originally it meant the actions one should

take to be a good person, or a sort of code of conduct.

Thanking people who have helped you out is an action that a good person would take.

However, there are situations in which people give chocolate to their boss

even if they haven’t actually received any sort of help, so I guess

in cases like that it’s out of a sense of obligation.

But I think “giri” more refers to doing the right thing,

and it also happens to be a societal obligation, if that makes sense.

Bishop: That’s pretty complicated… so could you say that

it’s similar to o-chugen (mid-summer gifts) or o-seibo (year-end gifts)?

JinK: Bishop-san, that’s quite the knowledge you have there of Japanese customs.

Yes, o-chugen and o-seibo are for keeping in touch twice a year with people

who have helped you out in some way.

In summer and at the end of the year, people send gifts to express

their thanks and wishes for good health.

With O-chugen and O-seibo, once you give it to someone it’s hard to stop

continuing to give it every year. From the recipient’s perspective also, it wouldn’t

feel good to stop getting a gift from someone who had sent one the year before.

Some people feel that if you send it once, you should be prepared to

keep doing so every year until that person passes away.

In comparison, Valentine’s Day is much more casual.

Valentine’s Day gifts are cheaper, and you don’t need to put much thought into

what to give. Also, there’s the added benefit of getting something in return

on White Day.

Bishop: White Day? What is that?

JinK: White Day is March 14th, one month after Valentine’s Day,

when all the men who got Valentine’s Day gifts are expected to return the favor.

As a rule of thumb, the gift returned should be 2 to 3 times as expensive as the one received.

Bishop: I see. So even in Japan men still end up paying the most.

So then Valentine’s Day in Japan is just about giving “giri-choko?” At elementary schools in the U.S.,

I remember we had to give cards out to all the other students out of obligation;

it seems kind of like that almost.

Valentine’s Day without the romance… that’s kind of sad.

JinK: Well, that’s true for the majority, but there’s another type of chocolate which people

give to those they have feelings for, not “giri-choko” but “honmei-choko,”

or in other words the chocolate of love.

Bishop: Chocolate of love? That’s confusing.

So how do you tell whether it’s “giri-choko” or “honmei-choko?”

JinK: You can tell pretty easily. “Giri-choko” tends to be cheaper and will be store-bought.

“Honmei-choko” will be much more expensive, or oftentimes even hand-made.

And the message card attached will be different.

Bishop: Interesting. I understand the “honmei-choko” part – that comes from the Western traditions;

but I still don’t understand where the tradition of “giri-choko” came from.

It seems that there is already enough gift-giving with o-chugen and o-seibo.

JinK: That’s a good point. One big reason is that it’s not as formal as o-chugen and o-seibo,

so it’s easier to give Valentine’s Day chocolates to more people.

It fits that need for sending thanks to people who help you out day-to-day,

but for who you don’t want to go so far as to start sending o-chugen or o-seibo.

Also, oftentimes with students, the existence of “giri-choko” makes it easier to give

“honmei choko” to the person they like. Japanese women don’t usually feel comfortable

openly confessing their feelings to men they like.

Bishop: What do you mean?

JinK: In other words, Valentine’s Day provides a good excuse for women to confess their feelings.

Bishop: I see. So, you may expect giri-choko from a co-worker, then open up the box and get a big surprise!

JinK: Exactly. By the way, did you open up your box?

Bishop: Um, no, not yet… wait… here it goes… hmmm, well, what do you think, JinK-san?

JinK: Wow! Those are some fancy chocolates! This is…

Bishop: Ah… oh no. This is honmei choko? What do I do? I guess I have no choice but to break my diet and eat them all.

JinK: Bishop-san, you look so happy. I hate to break it to you, but that’s giri-choko.

Bishop: So, I’m obligated to return something 3 times as expensive?

JinK: Yeah, I guess you could say that’s a bit of Japanese justice for you (LOL).


Fact #10:  Japan has a culture of “Obligation chocolates” which leads to consumption of about 50 billion yen worth of chocolate on Valentine’s Day, or about 10% of the total annual consumption.

by Bishop & JinK.

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