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Chicken Soup for the Guy's Soul

Culture Article
(Originally for Chicken Soup for the Guy's Soul, this article appeared in syndication in various newspapers throughout North America, January 2003)

Obligation Day

Valentine’s Day is different in Japan. It’s a recent custom borrowed from the West, but turned completely on its head as only the Japanese can do. On February 14th little girls, office ladies, and affectionate housewives give boxes of chocolate to their male "superiors"– teachers, bosses, senior coworkers, boyfriends and husbands. That’s right, women give men gifts! As the practice has integrated itself into rigid Japanese social customs, it has even been given a name worthy of the St. Valentine’s spirit: giri-choco. Obligation Chocolate.

I know about this custom because it was one of my first experiences while teaching English in Japan. In that year, I certainly learned more from my students than they did from me. After all, with little explanation the girls were able to talk me into accepting their giri-choco. I couldn’t get even a single male student to give his girlfriend anything on Valentine’s Day. My enthusiastic pitch for equality did, however, gain me quite a few female fans. And with too much chocolate for any man to eat, I ended up giving my boxes of chocolate to my girlfriend at the time.

I returned back to the USA the following January, just a few short weeks before the wacky American version of Obligation Day. Since I’d been so busy working in Japan, I hadn’t had time to take formal Japanese classes while I was actually there. I decided to rectify the situation by taking a class at the local university. I meant to augment the grunts and gestures I’d been relying upon until then to communicate with Japanese people here in America. On the first day, my classmates and I were introduced to a recently arrived Japanese graduate student named Kaori. She was studying to be a Japanese teacher and would just observe our class. She seemed timid, but friendly, kind, but nervous. She had the same expression on her face that I had when I introduced myself to my first class.

For weeks she sat in the back of the room and said hardly a word. Sometimes the teacher would ask Kaori to confirm her own explanation of some Japanese custom. "Hai, soo desu. Yes, that’s right." She answered politely and briefly. After class I would occasionally try to start a conversation with her, but all I could muster were basic greetings and dull-witted compliments. "Kono sukarufu wa kawaii. Your scarf is cute."

By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, I was determined to make more of an effort. What better day, and in what better place? She would be so thrilled by receiving chocolate, completely contrary to what she was used to. On the appointed day I presented her with a small box of chocolate, neatly wrapped with an inviting red card. My broken attempts at speech tried to convey to her that, now that she was in America, I wanted her to have some chocolate on Valentine’s Day. She read the note, written poorly in Japanese. It said simply, "Kono chocoreto wa giri ga nai desu. This chocolate comes without obligation."

She laughed, and then in perfectly fluent English said, "In America you have very different customs than Japan. Your Valentine’s Day makes people sad if they don’t receive a gift. In Japan everyone knows who will get the chocolate. There is no surprise, but no one is sad either."

I started to say something, but she continued. "Although women in Japan give men chocolate on Valentine’s Day, men don’t eat the chocolate. They give it to their wives and girlfriends. To be perfectly honest, this is the least amount of chocolate I’ve ever received on Valentine’s Day."

I laughed, the only purpose being to hide my embarrassment. It seemed I hadn’t learned very much in Japan after all. Here I was getting a lesson in Valentine’s Day when I thought I’d be the one teaching it!

I was still shocked that Kaori could actually speak English, but I wasted no time in using this once-a-year opportunity.

"In America," I explained with a grin, "Valentine’s Day has many more customs. Although there is no obligation, it is considered polite to give a kiss to anyone who buys you chocolate."

She returned the box to me and frowned. She looked even cuter with her nose furled and her lips pouting. "You have strange customs in America," she said finally. "But I like them."

She kissed me on the cheek. Then she took back the box of chocolates.