New for 2014, in addition to sharing Matcha news, recipes, stories, trade show news, and all things Matcha, we are excited to start a new feature of the Aiya Matcha Blog – The Emerald Experience. In this series of posts we are going to share a bit more about Japan, its culture, and some of the traditions that shape the land from which the Matcha you drink everyday comes. For our first post, we are going to talk a little bit about a Western Holiday that has taken on it’s own unique shape in Japan – Valentine’s Day.
While the traditional image of Valentine’s Day in western culture is that of men buying flowers, cards, chocolates, etc for the women they love, in Japan the opposite is the cultural norm; generally speaking, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give gifts to the men in their lives. And while giving flowers and cards is slowly becoming more popular, the most common gift women give is chocolate (either handmade or store bought). Handmade chocolate in particular is the preferred gift as it is seen to have more thought, sincerity, and effort put into the gift-giving process. The chocolate-giving custom is, in fact, so widespread that most Japanese chocolate companies make over half of their annual sales in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.
Culturally speaking, the meaning behind adult women giving gifts is also different; it may be genuinely romantic or may be simply polite. In addition to expressing their feelings for the one(s) they are romantically interested in, Japanese women also make chocolates for their bosses, male friends, co-workers, and other men in their life. Chocolates given under these conditions are referred to as “giri chocolate,” chocolate given to be polite and not exclude anyone in the social/professional circle. This practice is similar to how American elementary school children hand out bought/handmade valentines to all their classmates and not just the object(s) of their affection. To more clearly show their feelings to that special someone, women will include an extra gift or something special along with using more expensive or better quality chocolate in the gift they give. The Japanese call these “honmei chocolates,” or chocolates that express true feeling.
As a final point, it is important to note that the cultural expectations surrounding Valentine’s Day are slowly shifting in Japan. In recent years, the pressure to give giri chocolates is decreasing as young women are starting to make more chocolates for their close female friends in addition to their romantic interests. In this way, the meaning behind Valentine’s Day in Japan is shifting more in line with how it has shifted in the West – a celebration of both romantic and platonic love.