How to navigate V-Day in Japan

Make the most of the role reversal

How to navigate V-Day in Japan

My first ‘Japanese Valentine’s Day’ was interesting, to say the least. My then boyfriend (now husband) hinted a couple of weeks ahead of time that he wanted his honmei-choco (full definition below) to be homemade rather than store-bought. I turned to Google and discovered his country has a different way of celebrating Valentine’s Day. Even though we were in America at the time, I decided I should be open to his culture... so I melted some chocolate in the microwave, poured it into a Texas-shaped cookie cutter, and called it done. He drew funny captions on pictures of us and put them in an album. It was all very romantic.

I found out later that he wasn’t planning on giving me anything, but the day before Valentine’s Day, his (American) roommate pointed out that girls dump their boyfriends for many reasons, one of which being they didn’t get a gift on Valentine’s Day. Of course I wouldn’t have done that; that’s just silly. But if I had gone to all the trouble of making honmeichoco and he’d shown up emptyhanded, we would have fought.


Valentine’s Day was imported to Japan in the ’50s 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 ads here 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, more than 50 years later, Japanese Valentine’s Day is still a day when women give stuff to men. And chocolate companies continue to profit, reportedly making half their annual sales during this time of year.


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, honmeichoco 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’.


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 ’70s, 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. (My husband is quick to point out that if you break up with a girl between Valentine’s Day and White Day, you don’t have to get her a present, but I wouldn’t recommend that.)


Two years ago, I was working at a Japanese company on Valentine’s Day. My husband urged me to buy small, individually wrapped chocolates for all my male colleagues and bosses. I thought it was weird and creepy, but I followed his advice, and, was surprised to see most of my female colleagues had also brought chocolate. One month later, I was very pleased to find a small heap of white chocolates sitting on my desk – return gifts from my colleagues.

By Grace Buchele Mineta
Illustration by Bunny Bissoux
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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