Courtesy Calls Valentine's Day
Illustration: Bunny Bissoux

Tokyo Q&A: How does Japan celebrate Valentine's Day?

Valentine's Day is celebrated quite differently in Japan. Here's what you need to know. By Grace Buchele Mineta

Written by
Time Out Tokyo Editors

In a nutshell, women won’t be waking up to red roses in February, and men will be spending their March salary on all things white. Here’s how to make the most of Japan’s Valentine's Day role reversal.

Do: Know the history

Valentine’s Day was imported to Japan in the 1950s by a Japanese chocolate company that wanted to profit from a special occasion centring around buying things for people you love. By accident (or perhaps on purpose), some of the first ads for Valentine’s Day in Japan misrepresented the Western tradition, claiming it was a day when women showed love to the men in their lives by giving them various types of chocolate, instead of the other way around.

Now, 70 years later, Japanese Valentine’s Day is still a day when women give gifts to men. And chocolate companies continue to profit, reportedly making half their annual sales during this time of year.

Do: Know your honmei from your giri

There are two main types of chocolates given on Valentine’s Day: honmei-choco and giri-choco. Make sure to specify the type when you give it. Honmei-choco (本命チョコ), taken from the words 'honmei' (the favourite) and 'choco' (chocolate), are chocolates given to a very special person in your life, such as a boyfriend, husband or close male friend. From time to time, honmei-choco are accompanied by a ‘love confession’, where a woman asks the recipient to be her boyfriend.

Giri-choco (義理チョコ), taken from the words 'giri' (obligation) and 'choco' (chocolate), are chocolates given to someone without a romantic attachment, such as colleagues, friends or bosses. Depending on how many people are in your work circle, giri-choco can set you back several thousand yen. In recent years, two new types have also been marketed: gyaku-choco (逆チョコ), which means ‘reverse chocolate’, ie. for men to give to women as in the traditional custom, and tomo-choco (友チョコ), which means ‘friend chocolate’.

Don't: Forget about White Day

If now you’re thinking, ‘Wow, it must suck to be a woman in Japan on Valentine’s Day’ or ‘Wow, I need to move to Japan’, don’t forget that women do get some love too, exactly one month later. White Day takes place on March 14 and was first introduced by a confectionary company in the 1970s, who named it after the colour of sugar and then twisted the meaning by saying white means ‘pure love’.

On White Day, men return the V-Day favour threefold (read: three times the cost) to all the women who gave them gifts on February 14. It can get expensive, fast. As the name suggests, the theme of the day is white, so women often expect white chocolate, white scarves or accessories, and/or silver jewellery. If a Japanese woman gives you a gift, even just giri-choco, don’t forget to get her a little something in return for White Day.

Don't: Skip your colleagues

Although purchasing chocolates for your colleagues might seem weird or creepy at first, you probably won't be the only one showing up at work with chocolates for your male counterparts. Wait one more month, and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by the return in gesture on White Day when your male colleagues reciprocate with some white-coloured sweets.

Originally published in 2015.

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