Valentine’s Day, Translation Blunders and Japanese Chocolates

At the risk of sounding slightly addicted to sweet things here at Creative (following our post about Pancake Day two weeks ago), we’d just like to talk about chocolate for a moment. Japanese Valentine’s Day chocolate, to be precise. And what this has to do with mistakes in marketing translation.

Did you know that the Valentine’s Day tradition in Japan can be traced back to a translation blunder from the 1950’s?

Read on to find out the reason. Plus, how we can help you to avoid potentially costly translation errors.

The translation mistake that led to the Valentine’s Day tradition in Japan

On 14th February it was Valentine’s Day in the UK and several different countries around the world. Our guess is that a lot of chocolate was given as a token of love and appreciation between individuals. And perhaps nowhere more so than in Japan.

In The Land of the Rising Sun, it is customary for a woman to give chocolate to all the men in her life on 14th February, not just her one special beloved. Every year, she will give both “honmei” (true love) chocolate, and “giri” (obligation) chocolate. Valentine’s Day chocolate is big business in Japan. It’s not really surprising, therefore, that McDonald’s are currently trialling chocolate covered fries over there (which has got to be an interesting flavour experience!)

The women don’t miss out, however, as traditionally the men return the gift-giving to the women in their lives on March 14th, which is known as “White Day”.

The funny thing is, this tradition all started as a result of a translation mistake.

It’s true. Back in the 1950’s, when Japan’s post-war economy was flagging and the West was faring much better, a marketing executive thought that the European idea of Valentine’s Day could be a way to improve the Japanese economy. However, instead of the tradition we know in Europe, where men and women both exchange gifts, he misunderstood and due to an error in translation he thought that it was only women who gave the chocolate gifts to men. And hence the current custom was born.

It just goes to show how much impact one small translation mistake can have!

While this mistake actually turned out to be a win for the chocolate companies, not all translation errors will have a happy ending for the company or brand in question.

There are lots of examples of companies left feeling shame-faced (and quite often, out of pocket), after a silly translation slip up which could have been avoided by using professional translation services.

A costly marketing translation mistake 

Staying in the business of food / beverages, there is the famous example of Pepsi, who when attempting to translate their tagline “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” into Chinese, allegedly came up with “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”.

And to cite an example from the finance industry, HSBC Bank once famously learnt the hard way that translation blunders can be very expensive. The bank wanted to take its “Assume Nothing” campaign overseas. The original tagline worked well in the U.S., but unfortunately, it was translated in many countries as “Do Nothing”. The company ended up having to spend a further $10 million – on top of the millions of dollars it had already spent – to change the tagline to “The world’s private bank”.

Here at Creative Translation we help brands to avoid embarrassing and potentially costly translation mistakes.

We’re specialists in marketing translation, and we know how important it is for companies to protect their brand when they “go global”. We put a lot of care, attention and hard work into doing exactly that.

If you’d like to learn more about marketing translation, read our article on ‘4 Things You Need To Know About Marketing Translation’.

And if you are hoping to launch an international advertising campaign this year, give us a call today on +44 (0)207294 7710 or email us at and we’ll be happy to help.