Valentine's Day was a disaster for Mamiko Obitsu last year. When the 14-year-old Japanese high-schooler gave her valentine an expensive box of chocolates, he grabbed it and walked away. But Miss Obitsu hopes for better success this year. She has a new crush and will give him a chocolate heart with the inscription ``I Love You'' painted in white icing.
``I'm a little scared,'' she says, giggling shyly. ``But if I don't give it, he'll never know how much I like him. This is my only chance all year.''
On Feb. 14, millions of young Japanese practice their version of a Western custom that dates back to an ancient fertility festival, the Feast of Lupercalia, and is named after a couple of third-century Christian saints both named Valentine.
And yet it's only natural that in Japan, where shyness and gift-giving are virtues, Valentine's Day should flourish. Since coming here 30 years ago, this cultural import has taken a Japanese twist: Girls give chocolates to boys, and not the other way around.
For teen-age girls giving chocolate is a must. But older women give, too. Of the more than 1,500 female participants in a recent chocolate manufacturers' survey, 80 percent of the women between the ages of 10 and 40 planned to give presents to male friends. Most of the women intended to give to between one and three friends, while one amorous woman had 34 men in mind.
The giving starts around age 12. For first-time givers, it's traumatic. ``I couldn't sleep for a whole week,'' says Miss Obitsu. ``I almost ate the chocolates so I wouldn't have to give them. But some friends arranged for me to meet my valentine in the playground, so he got the chocolates after all.''
Nor is the significance of Valentine's Day lost on Japanese men. They see the day as a chance for women to take the initiative in expressing their love, according to a 1980 survey by Seibu, Japan's largest department store chain. What's more, many men measure their desirability to women by the number of gifts they receive.
Just how Valentine's Day got reversed in Japan is a mystery. But theories abound. ``Women are the underlings in relationships here; therefore they do the giving,'' says Charles Keally, a lecturer in anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo. ``Japanese men aren't inclined to do that much.''
Speaking from the heart, a 28-year-old secretary offers her opinion. ``It's hard for Japanese to express love,'' says Sonoko Masui. ``A girl is supposed to wait for her boyfriend to say he loves her. But if he doesn't say anything, she has to give him a hint. That's why the valentine-giving is so important.''
Whatever the origins of this tradition-in-reverse, it's clear that chocolate manufacturers have profited mightily. Ten percent of last year's 400 billion yen ($1.67 billion) in chocolate sales were rung up during the first two weeks of February.
Sales are further boosted by the fact that there are three forms of giving candy. The most common is rabu-choco, the chocolates given to boyfriends and crushes. Rabu is the Japanese pronunciation of the English word ``love.''
Girls without boyfriends get dojo-choco, or sympathy chocolate, from considerate parents and girlfriends in the same predicament. Girls also give dojo-choco to boys who might otherwise receive nothing. Finally, there is giri-choco, or obligation chocolate, that shows loyalty to male teachers and bosses.
As if this weren't enough, candy manufacturers recently established a day for men who get presents to give in return. Dubbed ``White Day'' -- white symbolizes purity -- this unique custom falls on March 14, exactly one month after Valentine's Day.
White candy is the only acceptable gift. If a man lavishes a firm candy such as white chocolates on a woman, he likes her. But a woman who receives a soft candy such as marshmallows had best look elsewhere for romance.
Despite all the hype, White Day is a poor second to Valentine's Day. ``I never give on White Day,'' says Kenji Serata, a computer programmer. ``It's just an effort by companies to sell more candy. Besides, women should give at least once a year without expecting in return.''
Japanese are surprised to hear that in the United States it is the men who shower women with flowers, candies, and cards on Valentine's Day.
Predictably, Japanese men prefer their version.
But as for Japanese women, ``I wish we had American-style valentines here,'' sighs high-schooler Mamiko Obitsu. ``Then I wouldn't have to get so nervous.''