Japan Glances

Valentine’s Day and White Day

Society Culture

Valentine’s Day in Japan has come to represent something rather different from established Western takes on the occasion. On February 14 and its sister celebration a month later, “White Day,” the thoughts of many across the nation turn to one thing: chocolate.

It Started with a Notice

In many countries around the world, February 14 is a chance to declare one’s affection for a significant other or prospective partner. This is done with anything from cards and flowers to balloons and even teddy bears. In Japan, however, the transaction centers specifically on one gift: chocolate.

This custom is thought by some to have started in 1936, when Kobe-based confectioner Morozoff placed an advertisement in the February 12 edition of the English-language newspaper Japan Advertiser, suggesting that readers send chocolates as a Valentine’s gift. Other competing theories point to the February 1958 introduction by Japanese chocolatier Mary’s of heart-shaped chocolates, or a 1960 ad campaign in which candy company Morinaga targeted the amorous with the slogan “Send chocolates to your love.”

Chocolates All Around

Whatever its exact origins, before long, this practice had evolved to fix the role of women and girls as the February 14 chocolate-givers and their male counterparts as the recipients. In cases where such gifts signify genuine feelings of romance, they are known as honmei-choko—the chocolates you give to “the real thing.” Exchanges between family members are referred to as fami-choko, while men and boys who reverse the prescribed gender roles to make their own cocoa-based offerings are said to have given a “reversed” version, gyaku-choko.

Another dominant trend is the feminine practice of offering chocolates to male colleagues, classmates, and teachers in an unromantic, matter-of-fact transaction that is—sometimes ruefully—termed giri-choko (obligation chocolate). Other variants include tomo-choko (gifts among friends) and jibun-choko (self-chocolate), the ideal way for lonely hearts to cheer themselves up.

Romance vs. Recognition

A fiscal 2012 survey by online retailer Netprice found that Japan’s women that year were most likely to buy chocolates for family at 67%, followed by giri-choko for colleagues at 34%, gifts for sweethearts and friends at 18% each, and jibun-choko at 14%.

A department store chocolate counter ahead of Valentine’s Day. (© Jiji Press)

In another survey carried out in January 2012, female respondents were quizzed on how they viewed Valentine’s Day. The response “as a chance to show my nearest and dearest how I feel” was beaten into second place by “as a chance to express my gratitude to those on whom I depend on a daily basis,” suggesting that the occasion is more about duty than love, even in the platonic sense.

White Day: Gentlemen, Take the Lead

This seems like a one-way deal, in which men are bombarded with chocolate for nothing in return. But there is a twist. Exactly one calendar month after Valentine’s Day, on March 14, comes White Day, when men are expected to reciprocate.

This custom also started with an industry-led campaign, with confectionery firms under the umbrella of the National Confectionery Industry Association promoting the idea that men should repay in kind every Valentine’s gift received, with candy the recommended option. And while the guidelines for this recompense are not set in stone, to show that the men have not come out of this exchange on top, one rule of thumb suggests that White Day gifts should amount to 2–3 times the quantity of chocolate received.

So it is that, come March, many a salaryman around the country will face the difficult choice of just what to give his colleagues for White Day. There is a sense that the return offerings should be rather high quality, but to divulge exactly how much one has spent is unheard of.

Bon Bon Bonanza

All in all, this adds up to a yearly bonanza for chocolatiers and confectioners. A fiscal 2014 survey by the Chocolate and Cocoa Association of Japan pegged the annual retail value for chocolate (excluding imports) at almost ¥500 billion, with February spending accounting for nearly a quarter of that value. Total annual Valentine’s-related turnover is estimated to exceed ¥70 billion.

Despite the rose hues and hearts that often accompany the marketing machine, then, Valentine’s in Japan is more about an expression of gratitude than romance. Nonetheless, for the more than half of Japan’s population who receive something sweet each year on Valentine’s Day or White Day, whether the sentiment behind the gift is true love or mere obligation, it must surely still be a welcome treat.

(Banner photo: a selection of Valentine’s chocolates. Courtesy Hamano Hideya.)

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