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Valentine’s Day in Japan: How and Why Do Japanese Women Give Chocolates to Men?

Giving Chocolate to the Man You Love

In some countries, Valentine’s Day is a special day when lovers give gifts to each other, or men offer flowers and other presents to their sweetheart. In Japan, it is customary that women offer chocolates to men, who only receive the gifts.

Valentine’s Day is the busiest season for chocolate makers all over Japan, making between 10 and 13 percent of their annual sales in a few days. Buying good and expensive chocolate at the most famous shops is common, but making handmade chocolate or chocolate treats is thought to convey more feelings. That is why in many shops (such as 100-yen shops), you will find all sorts of cute molds and heart-shaped decorations before Valentine’s season. And as it is often the case in Japan, the wrapping is at least as important as the gift itself, so you will also find a great selection of boxes and ribbons.

As a matter of fact, many women prefer to make the sweets themselves in order to save money!

 But where does this tradition of offering chocolates come from?

The Origins of Valentine’s Day in Japan: Some Key Dates

You probably will not be surprised to know that Valentine’s Day, more than elsewhere in Japan, is a commercial celebration. Literally so: it was popularized by the chocolate-making industry. Here are some key dates:

  • 1932: The Japanese company Morozoff started selling chocolates in Japan.
  • 1936: Morozoff suggested offering chocolates for Valentine’s Day in the English newspaper “The Japan Advertiser.”
  • 1958: The shop Mary Chocolate, located in Tokyo’s famous department store Isetan, organized the first chocolate sales for Valentine’s Day. They sold… five chocolate tablets!
  • 1960: The Japanese sweets maker Morinaga made the first huge Valentine’s Day advertisement campaign in newspapers. From then, the celebration got increasingly popular.
  • In the ‘70s, high school girls started offering chocolates to the boys they love.
  • In the ‘80s, the concept of offering chocolates to express gratitude was introduced. The “giri choco” was born (see below).

Offering “Obligatory” Chocolate…?

Some chocolates next to a heart-decorated box

“Real” Valentine’s chocolates (the ones you give to the person you love) are called honmei choco.” These ones are supposed to convey romantic feelings. As you may have guessed, if there is a word for chocolates that express love… it means that there are other chocolates that do not! 

Tomo choco, is chocolate you give your friends (“tomodachi” in Japanese) as a mark of affection. Women offer them to their male friends, and also to their female friends, making an exception to the “men only” rule. In a similar way, girls can also offer chocolate to their fathers, brothers, and other male family members.

Giri choco is a reflection of social relations in Japanese culture. “Giri” means “obligation” in Japanese, so the expression refers to chocolate offered to people you are obligated to: coworkers, bosses, teachers, sometimes family members, etc. To make sure giri choco are not mistaken with honmei choco, they are often of cheaper value, but they still represent a big expense for working women. For this reason (and also because it is time consuming), some companies have decided to officially ban the giri choco tradition. Some other companies just casually do not observe it. If you are a woman living in Japan, the best is to ask your coworkers about it a few weeks in advance.

But the existence of giri choco also offers an advantage: if a woman is not sure if her honmei choco will be accepted as such, or if the man is not interested but does not want to hurt her feelings, both can pretend the honmei choco was just giri choco and save face—an important Japanese concept. 

White Day

Heart-shaped pink and white cookies

Women offering chocolates filled with love is a nice concept, but you may want to ask, what about men, then? Well, there is another tradition for this: the White Day. Taking place exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, it is when men offer gifts to women.

A few years after Valentine’s Day came to be established, the confectionery industry had the idea to make March 14th a day to return the favor. At first, candies and marshmallows were the standard gifts. Nowadays, you can see articles in some women’s magazines saying, “On White Day, you get triple the gifts that you gave on Valentine’s Day,” so it is a little tough on men’s pockets, so to speak.

That being said, it is an exciting day for students. If Valentine’s Day is when a girl makes her confession of love, then White Day is when the boy accepts it and they become a couple. At least, it seems to be the case for many high schoolers.
Also, in Japan, March is the season of graduation and farewells, so White Day is a day where boys will be encouraged to tell their special someone about their feelings before they won’t be able to see them again.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.