Sugar high

It would be hard to escape the fact that today is Valentine’s Day, wherever you are in the world. For unashamed romantics, as the day draws to a close you may be feeling sad that it’s over for another year. For others, maybe the feeling is more one of relief that the world will no longer be full of pink hearts and red roses. In Japan, we’re just getting started. Valentine’s Day is the first half of a chocolate frenzy which will come round again in exactly a month’s time, but in March it will be called White Day and the giving will, to some extent, be reversed.

There are two kinds of gifts given today; ‘giri choco’ (義理チョコ) and ‘honmei choco’ (本命チョコ). These are chocolate gifts given to men, by women. The first, ‘giri choco’, or the rather splendidly named ‘obligation chocolate’, is given to co-workers and other men to whom the giver has no romantic attachment. Now, that may all sound quite inconsequential, but I remember reading several years ago that Japanese women working in companies could easily spend ¥10,000 on this obligation. That’s a lot of small bags or boxes of chocolate on a lot of male colleagues’ desks. The opposite of this is ‘honmei choco’, usually translated as ‘true feeling chocolate’, and this is generally more expensive, higher quality chocolate, and given to a boyfriend, husband or someone for whom the giver does have romantic feelings. It may be homemade, because that conveys genuine affection and dedication too.

For several weeks, the shops have been stocking more and more chocolate, all packaged ready to be given in obligation or the throes of true feeling, and by the beginning of this week it was all rather mad. I was in a department store on Tuesday evening, and the floor which sells all manner of food, from tea, coffee and rice crackers to cakes and chocolate was a kind of feeding frenzy of shoppers, all women and girls, buying large quantities of chocolate. The Godiva counter had someone conducting a very Japanese form of crowd control, holding a sign aloft with the kanji for ‘end of the queue’ while a small army of staff behind the counter struggled to keep up. Even the rice cracker counters, which normally have no chocolate, were selling chocolate-covered versions of their regular products.

Today I went into school with some trepidation. Working at a girls’ school, Valentine’s Day has mutated into a kind of giant chocolate celebration. You probably have no idea just how much chocolate and how many cookies approximately 1,000 girls can bring into school. You’ll just have to take my word for it, it’s a huge amount. On my way to the first lesson of the day I passed classrooms full of girls, just back from the morning assembly, gathered in a large group, each with boxes or bags of homemade goods, doling out one piece to each girl. The younger students were apparently not eating them, but squirrelled them away into carrier bags to take home. The older ones were already eating – at 8:35 in the morning.

By the time I made my way back to the staffroom two hours later, the air was thick with the smell of chocolate, and the students were crowding in the corridors, eyes glazed, louder than usual, and when I asked one to move so I could get past I had to ask three times. When she finally noticed me she shrieked a greeting but seemed unsure in which direction to move. I was just glad I only had two lessons today. In previous years I have taught more and every lesson has the same pattern; the lesson starts on a mass sugar high, no one can concentrate, but after a while they all crash and have no energy. I know all my colleagues will have worked very hard today, it’s a challenge to keep everyone going to the end of the lesson . . . when they re-group, share out some more sugar and repeat the process again . .  and again . . .  and again. Despite this heroic effort to try to consume it all on campus, they always fail miserably and have to lug carrier bags full of what remains home with them.

I heard from someone that Valentine’s Day has changed in recent years; instead of being a day to be obligated to give gifts to men, women have turned it more into a day to appreciate their friends and give chocolate to other women. The most recent development is to buy ‘my choco’ and eat it all yourself! I suppose the chocolate companies are happy as long as someone buys their wares.

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