This article originally featured in the February 2021 issue of Connect.

Haruka Matsuzaki (Tokyo)

Japan is a very unique country, and Valentine’s Day in Japan is no exception. In most Western countries, Valentine’s Day is a day when all genders express their love by sending cards, flowers, gifts, or going out for dinner. However, in Japan, it is usually girls and women who express their love by sending chocolate to their lovers.

Let’s look at the history of Valentine’s Day in Japan. It is said that the idea of Valentine’s Day was first introduced in Japan around the 1930s, when one confectionery shop put an advertisement of heart-shaped chocolate as a Valentine’s Day gift in the newspaper. Valentine’s Day became more popular in Japan around the 1960s, after major department stores and confectioneries saw it as a business opportunity and started campaigns. Their customers were mainly women, so it is said that the Valentine’s Day campaigns were mostly targeted at women on the premise that “Valentine’s Day is the day women express love to their loved ones.” Later, the chocolate-giving tradition became popular among school girls. In Japan, many school girls give home-made chocolate or cookies to boys that they have crushes on at school.

According to one statistic, it is estimated that around 20% of total consumption of chocolate is consumed on Valentine’s Day in Japan (1). The economic impact is said to be around 120 billion yen ($1.16 billion). There are many different types of chocolate given on Valentine’s Day in Japan. Honmei Choco (本命チョコ, or “true feeling chocolate”) is a type of chocolate given to men whom the giver has romantic feelings for. This is often given to husbands, boyfriends, and desired partners. Honmei chocolate is usually higher-quality and more expensive.

On the other hand, Giri Choco (義理チョコ, or “obligation chocolate”) is often given to male co-workers, bosses, and acquaintances out of appreciation and politeness. This type of chocolate is usually cheaper when compared with Honmei Choco. Surprisingly, in some Japanese companies, there is a kind of pressure on women to give Giri Choco to their male co-workers or bosses in order to appear polite or nice. According to a survey, 80% of working women answered that they don’t want to give Giri Choco (2). However, around 30% of them answered that they will (or they feel they have to) give Giri Choco.

Tomo Choco (友チョコ, or “friendship chocolate”) is a type of chocolate often given to female friends. Tomo Choco is most popular among school girls.

In recent years, a new type of chocolate, called Jibun Choco (自分チョコ, or “chocolate for oneself”), has emerged. This is a type of chocolate women buy for themselves as a kind of reward. Perhaps surprisingly, according to one survey, more than half of women have bought chocolate for themselves on Valentine’s Day (3). Actually, this trend is very understandable, owing to the rise of ‘Herbivore Men’ (草食系男子, meaning “young men who express little interest in getting married or being assertive in relationships with women”), and the simultaneous increase in financial independence among women. There is even a type of chocolate called Gyaku Choco (逆チョコ, or “reverse chocolate”), now given to women by men.

Another significant tradition related to Valentine’s Day in Japan is “White Day.” White Day is on March 14, one month after Valentine’s Day, and it is when people give reciprocal gifts to those who gave them gifts on Valentine’s Day. The idea of White Day was actually created by the National Confectionery Industry Association in 1978 as a business opportunity. At first, white marshmallow was given as a White Day gift, so it was called “Marshmallow Day” in the beginning. One of the reasons why White Day became common in Japan is due to the Japanese gift-giving tradition, or the ideal that, if you receive a gift, you should give a gift in return (known as お返し文化, or “return gift culture”). People usually give a wide range of confectionery, such as chocolate, candy, marshmallows, and cookies, as White Day gifts. There is also a cultural ideal of Sanbai-gaeshi (3倍返し, or “triple the return”) which means you should return a gift two or three times the worth of the Valentine’s Day gift you received. According to a statistic, the economic effect of White Day is around 53 billion yen ($514 million) (2). However, the sales of White Day gifts have been decreasing in recent years. This might be because not as many people are giving Giri Choco (obligation chocolate) nowadays.

It is very interesting to see how Valentine’s Day has evolved in Japan and how the trend is changing as Japanese culture and gender roles have evolved. Of course, Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity for people (perhaps especially Japanese people, as the cultural atmosphere of tatemae often makes it difficult to express feelings outright) to express their love or appreciation to their loved ones, friends, or co-workers. However, I hope that no one feels any pressure to give chocolate (especially Giri Choco), nor sadness of not being able to receive chocolate on Valentine’s Day. I hope Valentine’s Day in Japan is a day for everyone (regardless of gender) to express their love or appreciation!

Haruka Matsuzaki is originally from Niigata prefecture and now works in Tōkyō. She loves travelling, eating, watching Netflix documentaries, and yoga. She’s taking an interpretation course to become an English-Japanese interpreter.