A two-part affair

Japan has a tradition of embracing western festivals and occasions whilst giving them a uniquely Japanese twist; such is the case with Valentine’s Day in Japan. 

Whereas in the west, Valentine’s Day is ultimately a day of romance, exchanging gifts and affection; in Japan, specific gifts are given not just to potential or ongoing partners but to many others in a somewhat hierarchical way. Not only that, only half the population takes part; the other half continuing the process on an entirely new occasion named White Day. 

The season is a toned-down affair compared to its western counterpart as December (Christmas time) is considered perhaps a bigger occasion in Japan for romantic gestures. Still, the scenario around Valentine’s and White Day in Japan has become customary and intriguing for those abroad. 

Let’s dive into some of the details.

Quick selection

Valentine’s Day culture

  1. Chocolate levels

White Day

Valentine’s Day culture

Valentine’s Day in Japan is celebrated on the same day as everywhere else in the world (the 14th of February) but with a few differences. The major one being it is a day where only females give out gifts to their male counterparts. This may seem slightly unfair however that is where White Day comes in. (More on that in a bit.)

Previous to the introduction of Valentine’s Day in Japan in 1936, there was little opportunity for people to express feelings towards someone they admire, with its arrival, an opportunity arose once a year where it is acceptable. The approach here is a subtle one like a small gesture rather than a day of grand declarations.

Chocolate is the gift that is given the most — almost exclusively — however, what kind of chocolate you receive can say an awful lot in Japan. This brings us on to another important differentiation; gift giving isn’t confined to just romantic interests, but also friends, colleagues and in some cases people you feel sorry for; in truth, there can be a lot of social pressure to buy chocolate for all these groups of people.

Chocolate levels

Valentine's Day chocolates.
Photo by Lu Amaral on Unsplash

Depending on the recipient that the chocolates are for determines the quality and thought that goes into them. Naturally, you would make more effort for someone you admire, compared to those obligatory gifts to work colleagues. In Japan, there are three categories that can help explain this further:

  • Honmei Choco
  • Tomo Choco
  • Giri Choco

Honmei Choco

A Honmei Choco is the type of chocolate that is given to someone whom your heart is set on; Honmei literally means favourite, most often used in terms of a favourite someone. 

This type of chocolate is often hand-made with care and attention, it’s more unique, personal and highlights the thought and hard work that has gone into making them (hopefully noticed by the lucky recipient). Even if your skill at making something from scratch is lacking, baking kits and the sort are a popular purchase allowing lovingly homemade appeal — just with a little help. 

Buying Honmei Choco from a shop is a perfectly valid option, however, they would have to be quite extravagant. 

Tomo Choco

Tomo Choco is something of a more modern development. In Japanese tomo means ‘friend’ and as such girls and women have begun giving each other chocolate on valentines day as well as a symbol of friendship rather than romantic interest. 

Everyone can agree that friendship is important and as such the chocolates given here will show that. Simple baking recipes such as chocolate cookies or cakes are a go to here but there doesn’t need to be quite so much effort as those made for your Honmei. Good quality store bought chocolates are also a more viable option here.

Giri Choco

Lastly we have Giri Choco which can either be seen as a nice thing to do or total pain; that’s because Giri literally means obligation in Japanese. Giri Choco can be given to co-workers, family members, and sometimes in the case of younger girls or students, to boys who you think might not get anything. 

It’s safe to say that Giri Choco may not be as important as those of the other categories and just the act of giving something fulfils this obligation. As such, buying chocolate from a store is the most common thing to do, especially as there can be a lot of Giri chocolate to hand out depending on social circles.

White Day

White Day gifts
Photo by STIL on Unsplash

So, Valentine’s Day has come and gone; all manner of chocolates have been made, bought, and handed out but nothing has been received in return, that’s because exactly one month later on the 14th of March is White Day in Japan. This is the day that men return the gesture by buying gifts for the girls and women who made an effort on Valentine’s day.

White Day didn’t come along until 1978 which meant there was a 42 year wait for women to receive anything. The day came about due to the frustration of the female population, notably female executives at the Japanese based company named Ishimura Manseido, who went and trialled a day where the women employees would receive gifts. 

Typically speaking the White day culture is not as strict as those on Valentine’s day. Chocolate, although common, is not exclusively given and anything handmade is very rare; this also means that the three gift giving categories also don’t really apply here. Lastly, an attempt to buy a gift of comparable value to those received does happen, not everyone will get one.

One major idea that is unique to White day, however, is the gift for your ‘Honmei’; as a general rule the gift should be worth three times as much as the one received. So while chocolates can be an option for returning Giri Choco, you’re more likely to find men purchasing for example jewellery, clothing, or nights out which more commonly aligns with Valentine’s gifts in the west. 


Valentine’s Day in Japan may be a little unconventional to what many of us may expect, but then it is an occasion that has adapted to fit the social system of Japan. It’s a time when there can be substantial pressure on the female population, however, in recent years there has been a steady decline in its celebration and the willingness to buy Giri Choco — and who can blame them. 

Nevertheless both Valentine’s Day and White Day is a peculiarity that can both intrigue and bewilder.