Even more so than in the U.S. In Japan, it's such a corporate con-job, it's been split into two holidays! The first, on February 14th, is St. Valentine's Day; next month comes White Day, which is even more of a made-up farce. In Japan, St. Valentine's Day is a day when chocolate companies and department stores cash in on the idea that women must buy chocolate for all the men in their lives.
These chocolates come in two flavors. The first and most common is giri choco (gee-ree cho-ko, with a hard g as in guy). This is "obligation chocolate." If you're a woman, you're obligated to give this chocolate to male coworkers, family members, all your non-romantic guy friends.
The second and most special is honmei choco (hone-may cho-ko), which is the romantic kind. This is for husbands and boyfriends.
For the past few weeks, department stores have put out big, gorgeous displays of ultra-expensive chocolates, leading to... well, lots of sales. Our students with parttime jobs at stores like Entetsu, MayOne and Jusco have been answering the traditional, "How are you?" question with: "I'm tired. I had my parttime job. We were very busy!" The followup discussions have always involved chocolate and shoppers.
The female students have mixed feelings about it. They're aware of the artificiality of the holiday, but at the same time, they're enchanted by the romantic aspects of it. And mostly, they genuinely enjoy doing nice things for others. You know, the way people are. We're nice as a species, for the most part. So they can have both a cynical and sentimental view of Valentine's Day.
And obligation is a part of Japanese life.
Yesterday, I heard the Wonder Twins out in the hallway whispering "Joel-sensei" and discussing something. Then they shyly entered my classroom and said, simultaneously, "This is for you."
They handed me two small, ornately decorated boxes. Giri choco. In fact, my first giri choco of quite a lot during the day. I was really surprised and touched. Either the Wonder Twins are very thoughtful kids, or else their mom is a very thoughtful woman. I told them, "Arigato gozaimasu!"
This made them crack up, saying "Nihongo? Nihongo! Nihongo?" to each other like they couldn't believe their ears.
One of my grown-up students also gave me giri choco- a plastic heart-shaped box with some delicious crispy chestnut bonbons. I know they were delicious because I ate all of them last night.
Mostly, I feel awkward receiving giri choco. I suppose honmei choco would be a different story, but there's little or no chance of that this year. I'm not too heartbroken about it. The big question is, will I have to respond in kind with giri choco on White Day? I'll be happy to do it, but at the same time...