On Valentine’s Day, All You Need is Love. And Chocolate.

February 12, 2013

Photo credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

In many parts of the world, Valentine’s Day will find many men and women showering their significant others with romantic gestures. Think candlelight dinners, dozens of roses and even cards exchanged between elementary school kids. And of course, chocolate – lots and lots of chocolate.

But in Japan, Feb. 14 pretty much finds only men being given the sweet treatment. Japanese Valentine’s Day is a slightly different holiday from the dripping-with-romance version celebrated in other corners of the world. One constant though, is chocolate, the preferred gift of the holiday and even the focus of many Japanese songs.

The biggest divergence with Valentine’s in other countries is, as mentioned, that only women give men chocolate, but another marked difference is that it doesn’t have to be a romantic gesture. Many get chocolate for male friends and co-workers. In the latter case, it sometimes feels like an obligation to get chocolate for all men in the office. That even means the unpopular men sometimes get what’s referred to as “obligatory chocolate,” which is not-so-subtle code for the cheaper stuff. For a person that a woman has more passionate feelings for, she would give them higher-quality (read: expensive) chocolate – or she will make her own chocolates to show it’s anything but obligatory. Recently women also give their girlfriends chocolate.

A translation error might explain why only Japanese women are expected to give men chocolate come St. Valentine’s. According to the Japanese-language-and-culture website Tofugu, Japanese companies began advertising Valentine’s Day to the public in the 1950s, but an early advertisement botched the translation. Turns out this ad emphasized that the holiday was a time for “women to express their love to men.” This error-introduced concept stuck.

The folks selling the chocolate aren’t moaning about missed sales opportunities – chocolate companies make half of their annual sales just the week before Valentine’s Day. Starting near the end of January, establishments ranging from 7-11 to famous department stores break out the V-day ads and hold special chocolate sales. Even places that don’t regularly sell sweets get in on the Valentine’s theme; noodle restaurants make special “chocolate ramen” near the holiday, whereas spas in the nation’s capital offer various “chocolate health treatments,” including chocolate baths.

More common than candy spa treatments are J-pop songs about the season of love. In 2006, the Oricon music charts polled people about their favorite Valentine’s songs ever, and came up with a top-five list featuring Dreams Come True’s “Love Love Love,” Miles Davis’ “My Funny Valentine,” Yumi Matsutoya’s “Valentine’s Radio” and “KinKi Kids’ “Happy Happy Greeting” (which seems to be about New Year’s). The top spot, though, went to Sayuri Kokusho’s debut 1986 single “Valentine Kiss,” a bubbly number highlighted by some sweet (pun intended…) sha-la-las. The song marked Kokusho’s solo turn after a successful stint with the group Onyanko Club, and went on to win that year’s prestigious Best Single Of The Year award. “Valentine Kiss” has stuck with the public, and in 2011 AKB48 sub-group Watarirouka Hashiritai recorded a cover version that sold quite well.

As lovey-dovey as “Valentine Kiss” is, the best Japanese Valentine’s song belongs to techno-pop trio Perfume’s 2007 single “Chocolate Disco,” which captures the emotions of the holiday perfectly. On one level, it’s a vital song because it’s the track that helped the then caught-in-chart-no-man’s-land group get attention, which eventually led them to nationwide stardom.

Yet the hyper-catchy cut also shines because of its lyrical setting. If “obligatory chocolate” sounds as unromantic as it gets, Perfume and producer Yasutaka Nakata wisely set “Chocolate Disco” in a place where getting a chocolate can feel like life or death – school. The lyrics refer to girls planning their chocolate surprises, and expectant boys, the song peaking with the group’s best imagery ever with “I don’t know why, but our classroom has turned into a dancefloor.” “Chocolate Disco” is about nervous excitement at the prospect of getting a piece of candy and all that comes with that gesture, Perfume nailing the adolescent fluttering associated with Valentine’s Day.

A handful of Japanese Valentine’s songs have cropped up this year, but none can really touch “Chocolate Love” by Band Ja Naimon! The song itself is a stomping number – Band Ja Naimon’s live gimmick is that both members play drums – and the title gives away its seasonal connection. Yet the duo also seem to be up to something a bit more on “Chocolate Love” – they also spend significant time singing about glasses, and the video finds them piling pairs of glasses on their face before concluding with the two covering one another in chocolate syrup (free chocolate spa treatment!). It may not be the most romantic Valentine’s Day song, but it more than makes up for it with  the, um, stickier details.

Men might be the lucky ones on Feb. 14, but women get their turn one month later. On March 14, people celebrate White day, where the roles are flipped – men who received chocolate on Valentine’s Day are expected to return the favor with a gift, often confectionery but sometimes more. The holiday – started in 1978 by the National Confectionery Industry, who wanted to sell even more candy – initially revolved around white chocolate and other paler treats, like marshmallows and cookies. Today however, white and dark candy is welcome. And that’s appropriate, because despite all the differences, Japan’s approach to Valentine’s still centers around something people all over the world like – sweet, sweet chocolate.