Japanese Embrace Valentine's Day

Chocolate-giving is a ritual among everyone in Japan from schoolchildren to senior citizens. But the country has developed its own way of celebrating the erstwhile day of romance, and the custom is still evolving.

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In Japan, chocolate-giving is a ritual for young and old alike, and that may be part of the reason why few countries have embraced Valentine's Day like Japan. But the Japanese have developed their own, particular way of celebrating the day of romance, and the custom is still evolving.

And Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo.

LUCY CRAFT: Tokyu Hands, a trendy store in downtown Tokyo, is so jammed on this afternoon, it almost feels like a replay of the Christmas shopping rush - but with one big difference. Most of the customers here, browsing under magenta, heart-shaped balloons, are female. Valentine's Day Japan-style is in full swing.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

CRAFT: A pair of office clerks in their 20s hover over the hundreds of chocolate products on display. Valentine's Day has always been a Sadie Hawkins ritual in Japan, and these women ponder what to buy their fathers and male co-workers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CRAFT: Another group of friends works the joke-candy aisle. It features chocolate shaped like sushi, dried squids, sardines, mayonnaise and curry. One of the women says, we're not going in for cute this year. We want something that's a conversation starter.

Kaori Shoji is a columnist for the Japan Times and a close observer of Japanese society. She notes how Valentine's Day has traditionally centered on something known as giri choco, or obligation chocolates.

Ms. KAORI SHOJI (Columnist, Japan Times): Japanese womanhood is just, like, so nice, and they can't stand to see all these, you know, droopy-faced guys when, you know, the one popular guy is getting all these chocolates. That kind of thing kind of, like, you know, stabs at the consciousness of Japanese women. And so it became like a social event to give obligatory chocolates to the boss, to your friends, you know, to your acquaintances at the office.

CRAFT: Some say Japan's Valentine's Day ritual was dreamed up by the confectionary industry to goose sales during the winter doldrums. If so, Japan and the world's chocolate makers have been successful beyond their wildest dreams, with a huge chunk of chocolate changing hands at this time of year.

Kaori Shoji says the holiday provides a face-saving outlet for affection in a country known for its shyness and reserve.

Ms. SHOJI: Rumor has it that the girls, you know, in junior high started the trend first, about 20 years ago. It became one of the ways they can get their confessions out to the boys they like by giving them little gifts of handmade chocolate on Valentine's Day. And then it caught on into this whole commercial venture.

CRAFT: Commercial, it certainly is. At Toyku Hands, there are model classic cars and tiny golf bags filled with brandy, chocolate-flavored beer and heart-shaped clocks, bath mats and bento lunchboxes, to name just a few.

A crowd gathers as a store clerk demonstrates how to rip up a gateau chocolate. The kit makes two cakes: one to give away, one for the baker herself.

A Yahoo Japan survey found that about half the respondents are ignoring their male colleagues this year to give chocolates instead to their female friends and colleagues. And a new buzz word has cropped up recently: jibun choco - or me chocolate, says Kaori Shoji.

Ms. SHOJI: That's another Japanese phenomenon. Japanese women see themselves as so hardworking, downtrodden, so entitled to a little cuddling, pampering once a year. What the hell? You know, we give ourselves chocolate to boost our morale.

CRAFT: Another survey finds that Japanese women are still buying obligation chocolate, spending up to $200 for gifts to the men around them, but as much as $300 on candy for themselves.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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