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Understanding Valentine’s Day (and White Day) in Japan

How do you celebrate Valentine's Day and White Day in Japan?

By 4 min read

In most places celebrating Valentine’s Day, women can expect chocolates, flowers and a romantic dinner from their partner. However, in Japan, it’s the opposite: women give chocolates to the men in their lives—from their boyfriends to their coworkers—although not all chocolates are equal.

The special men in their lives receive honmei choco, “true feeling” chocolates, while Taro from accounting only receives giri choco, or “obligatory chocolates.” Guys stuck in the friend zone and even lady pals can also receive tomo-choco, or “friend chocolate.” It isn’t entirely one-sided. In March, the tables are turned and men are expected to reciprocate their feelings with sanbai kaeshi (literally, three-fold reciprocation).

Ever wonder how Valentine’s Day started in Japan or why things are so different compared to the West?

Here’s everything you need to know about Valentine’s Day in Japan.

Beginnings and lost in translation

Don’t get excited just yet, fellas.

Like most holidays imported from the West, Valentine’s Day in Japan started as an attempt to encourage excessive spending. Morozoff Ltd., a Kobe-based confectionery company, first used the holiday to attract foreigners in 1936 but didn’t start producing heart-shaped chocolates until 1953. Afterward, stores such as Isetan began promoting Valentine’s sales and the holiday boosted in popularity.

While no one is certain, and we’re sure Japan’s patriarchal leanings played a part, it’s thought that the switch from men giving chocolates to women to the opposite originated from a translation error. Thanks to Valentine’s Day, Japanese candy companies reportedly make half of their annual sales this time of the year.

What’s White Day?

Gifts shouldn’t require math.

In the 1970s, Fukuoka-based candy company, Ishimuramanseido, saw the candy rush on Valentine’s Day and tried pushing marshmallows on men a month later on March 14, calling it “Marshmallow Day.” Unfortunately, Ishimuramanseido failed to realize marshmallows are awful unless they’re sandwiched between a Hershey’s bar and a graham cracker. Thus, people just bought white chocolate instead.

Around the same time, Japan’s National Confectionery Industry Association realized they were excluding profits from half of the population. Whether or not they got the idea from Ishimuramanseido is unknown, but the all-middle-aged male committee made White Day the official “reply day” to women.

While it’s not written in stone, many women who buy gifts for their husbands or boyfriends on Valentine’s Day expect to receive a “return” three times as good on White Day. White chocolates are still the staple, but dark chocolates, flowers and white lingerie are also popular gifts. Some women might even be expecting jewelry, brand goods and fancy dinners.

Just to be safe, you should probably interpret “three times as good” as “really expensive.”

Do I have to give coworkers chocolate?

Give and take.

It likely depends on your company’s culture.

With names like “obligatory chocolate,” you can imagine that Valentine’s Day isn’t fun for either women or men. The word associated with giving Valentine’s Day gifts to people 義理 (giri) is interesting, as it has a subtle meaning of “give-and-take.” Some dictionaries even translate it as a “debt of gratitude.” Thus, a lot of people dread Valentine’s Day.

To show they are giving appropriately, many women feel pressured to prepare homemade chocolates. It’s not just women that feel the pressure. The idea of having a “debt of gratitude” can be stressful to the recipients of the chocolates too. To play it safe, many follow the sanbai-kaeshi rule on White Day. 

40 percent of female and male employees see giri choco as power harassment.

This excessive consumerism also garnered the term エビでタイを釣る (ebi de tai wo tsuru) or “using a shrimp to catch a big fish.” This expression is often attached to White Day and refers to women who give a small gift hoping that their boss will feel obliged to provide them with something bigger when White Day comes along.

Indeed, all this Valentine’s Day pressure has caused companywide bans on the holiday. Recent surveys show that nearly 40 percent of female and male employees see giri choco as power harassment. Nevertheless, others enjoy the practice because it makes coworkers happy and “promotes smoother workplace communication.”

Moreover, your company might appreciate it if you participate in the culture by sharing chocolates with your coworkers on White Day.

They can still be romantic

Who says you have to commit to tradition?

Regardless of company drama, Valentine’s Day is still enjoyed by couples. 

Although a romantic night out is more of a Christmas Eve affair in Japan, you can still celebrate the holiday as you would back home. Your Japanese partner might even appreciate the break from giri-tradition. Restaurants and flower shops have also been promoting Valentine’s Day as a western-style couple’s holiday in recent years. 

Need a few hints for a romantic night out? Check out these Valentine’s Day tips and tricks:

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