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  • Christina Theodorakis

Valentine's Day in Japan

It's February, and love is in the air. At least, that's what Hallmark trained us to think in the U.S. in more recent years, but as many people may know, Valentine's Day originated as a holiday to the Christian martyr Saint Valentine who was executed on the day.

As for the reason behind our Western celebration, here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry for Valentine's Day:

The Feast of Saint Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius I in AD 496 to be celebrated on February 14 in honour of Saint Valentine of Rome, who died on that date in AD 269. The day became associated with romantic love in the 14th and 15th centuries when notions of courtly love flourished, apparently by association with the "lovebirds" of early spring. In 18th-century England, it grew into an occasion in which couples expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as "valentines").

What started as and continues to be a day mostly for romantic love in the West now also includes familial love, but, just like Christmas in Japan, Valentine's Day is a unique day in the Land of the Rising Sun. When Valentine's Day was first attempted in Japan is disputed, as there are some accounts of chocolatiers beginning a Valentine's Day marketing campaign in as early as the 1930's, but by the 1970's, Japanese chocolate sellers were promoting Valentine's Day as a day where "women exclusively give chocolate to men," specifically their chocolate. There are some unofficial accounts which claim that a mistranslation was the culprit of this difference in Valentine's Day marketing between the West and Japan, but our Japanese colleagues -- who were born and raised in Japan -- recounted a different explanation to me. It's actually difficult to find official sources on how Valentine's Day started in Japan, but our Japanese colleagues have heard that this is basically how Valentine's Day started in Japan.

Historically, patriarchal societies were quite common, and we know about how drastically women's rights changed in the 20th century in the West. Japan maintained a strong patriarchal society even until today in some ways, with a high percentage of women still quitting their jobs when they have kids and beginning a new career as stay-at-home moms due in large part to pressure from male management at their companies, their husbands, and their families.

Anyway, by the '70s, Japanese women had started to enter the workforce in Japan just like in the West, and it was thought that women should take the reigns for a change on Valentine's Day and be the ones to express how they feel to a man they liked by giving him chocolate. This role reversal put a lot of pressure on women on top of the other responsibilities they have in Japanese society, and somehow the marketing message didn't translate to "men can also give women chocolate too." This is how strong gender roles are in Japanese culture.

If you're thinking, "Wait, why didn't men think to give women chocolate or flowers anyway?", the idea of men courting and wooing a woman they like with romantic gestures isn't a concept that's embedded in contemporary Japanese culture. Marketing, in large part, tries to convince a society what they should do or buy, and as a result of marketing in Japan post World War II, Japanese women should be the ones who pour their hearts out to men on Valentine's Day, for better or worse.

There's more. When I was in elementary school in the U.S., we were expected to prepare valentines for all our classmates as a friendly courtesy on Valentine's Day, regardless of gender. By the time I was in middle school, "courtesy valentines" were no longer a normal thing to do. In Japan, however, adult women are essentially expected to give out these courtesy Valentine's chocolates (known as 義理チョコ, which translates to "obligation chocolate") to their male colleagues at their office, although it's becoming increasingly less common as Japanese women learn about how Valentine's Day is celebrated in the West and find the expectations from their Japanese male counterparts unfair. This is only happening thanks to the ubiquity of social media within the past several years.

Thanks to marketing tactics and Japan's unique rules on gift-giving, Japan actually gets two days of increased chocolate sales thanks to a day they invented on March 14th. More on that in another blog coming soon!

Marketing is a cultural beast in any country, but expecting marketing and customer loyalty to work the same way in Japan as it does in your home country could be brand suicide if you don't prepare for what to expect before you bring your products or company to Japan. We'd be more than happy to be your liaison into the Japanese marketing scape with our team of bilingual professional writers who can bridge any communication gaps for your company and any Japanese partners or employees. Are you still hesitating? Shoot me an e-mail at and tell me what's on your mind and/or how awesome my hometown of Philadelphia is. I'm all ears!


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