by Michelle "Ms. Geek" Klein-Hass
Just like Christmas is very different in Japan, the Valentine's Day celebration is only minimally recognizable from what's familiar here. Yes, there's hearts and flowers and lots and lots of candy -- chocolate in particular -- but it has evolved into something that is quite different from what we know here in the US. Unlike here, children really don't get involved with it at all. No Valentine's Day card giveaway in class, no candy getting confiscated, no parties. It has become almost exclusively an event for grownups.
These customs have spread out, to one extent or another, to South Korea, Taiwan, and Mainland China. South Koreans have managed to add their own twist, which we will talk about later.
First of all, there is no mutual giving of gifts. Men get gifts from women on Valentine's Day, and women get their reciprocal gifts a month later, on White Day. And the list of recipients is long indeed, if you are an Office Lady or in High School or College. The gifts are usually chocolate or other candy, and there is a definite hierarchy to those gifts. From most important to least important: Honmei Choco, (Chocolate for the one you love) Tomo Choco, (Chocolate for your female friends, especially those you hang out with a lot) and Giri Choco. (Chocolate you give as part of your duty to co-workers and other people you deal with on a regular basis)
Honmei (Favorite) Choco has to be super-special. A lot of women try making their own chocolate for their special someone, but most resort to buying extra-special chocolates. That's where you see some of the wildest creations, like those stylish Evangelion-themed bonbons you see above, or something like this:
Yes, this is a KitKat. A candy that's even more popular in Japan than it is in the US. Sometimes we can get the awesome variant flavors that they do for Japan imported here, but often that's not the case. Especially not in this case. It's covered with a thin sheet of edible gold, to make it look like a gold brick. No, you don't unwrap the gold...you eat it. Nothing quite says "I love you" like a gift that makes your poo sparkly, huh?
Tomo Choco is chocolate you give to female friends. The ones you go shopping with, the ones you text with your romantic problems, the ones you commiserate with after work...in short, besties. Tomo Choco literally means "Friendship Chocolate."
And then, there's Giri Choco. Literally, this means "Duty Chocolate" and if you are an Office Lady, you basically wind up being like Oprah and running around like "...And YOU get chocolate! And YOU get chocolate! The whole male population of the office gets chocolate!" This is also the case for Homeroom in High School, which is probably something you might even have run across in anime and manga. There is a sub-hierarchy to these sweets...regular Giri Choco for office co-workers you can handle, and Cho-Giri Choco which is chocolate for people who you would rather not have anything to do with, yet you absolutely MUST give them chocolate.
"Here! Here's your freaking chocolate. NOW GO AWAY!"
The reward for making like Oprah and doling out the chocolate to all the guys in your life and your best chick friends? A month later, at least from the guys, you get an avalanche of chocolate and other stuff. It's White Day! Hooray!
The rule about White Day is that for every guy who gets given a gift of chocolate from a girl, he must turn around and give her a gift three times more expensive the month after. If you haven't figured it out yet, Japanese candy manufacturers like Glico and Meiji basically invented the Japanese version of Valentine's Day and the uniquely Asian commercial holiday of White Day. However, the 3x more expensive rule of the game means that lingerie manufacturers, jewelers, fine dining establishments, and department stores are in on the White Day act. And of course if you received Honmei Choco, you'd better go all-out for your honey bunny.
That about puts a wrapper on this bonbon. There is one last wrinkle that South Korea has added to these celebrations. On April 14th, those poor guys who did not receive even Giri Choco have their own celebration: Black Day. Single guys get together to commiserate about their bad luck in love, and eat Jajangmyeon, a noodle dish made with black soy paste in the sauce. This dish has become so identified with Black Day that they're also known as "Forever Alone Noodles."