Valentine’s Day in Japan: Chocolates to Give and Saying “I Love You” in Japanese

Unlike most areas around the globe, Valentine’s Day in Japan is done a bit differently — or, shall we say, oppositely. While you’ll find men getting agitated over dinner reservations, rose bouquets and chocolate-champagne pairing in countries like the United States, you’ll find the role reversed to women in Japan.

That’s right — in Japan, Valentine’s Day is all about women giving chocolate to men. It’s a strong tradition that dates back to the 1950s.

That doesn’t mean men can sit back and enjoy the sentiment, though. Exactly one month later, on March 14, they will have to return back the favor to the women with gifts, chocolates and dates — expected to be fancier and more expensive than before. That date is called White Day. Popular White Day gifts include chocolate, cookies and pieces of jewelry.

There’s a lot to explain, but we’ll try to go through everything you need to know about the sweet culture (no pun intended) and chocolates behind Valentine’s Day in Japan.

Valentine’s Day in Japan is a Day of Love

The difference doesn’t end with swapped roles. For the rest of us, we’re comfortable with Valentine’s Day being synonymous with romantic dates. It’s exclusive to partners who are in a relationship or are married. While some people can’t wait for Valentine’s Day to start, others just want the holiday to end. In other words, it’s a dreadful day for singles.

In Japan, you can consider Valentine’s Day as a day of love, but think of love in all non-romantic ways possible, like when you say “I love you” to your parents or best friends. Platonic, romantic, or between families — it doesn’t matter. Japanese women give chocolate to boys that she likes and also to their friends, families or colleagues. Bottom line is, romantic interest is not some prerequisite a girl needs to have in order to show appreciation.

Valentine’s Day Origin in Japan

We know that Valentine’s Day isn’t an actual traditional day in Japan. For a start, there’s obon, setsubun and the Golden Week. But how does a holiday that originated from the Roman empire got transported to Japan?

To make sense of it, think of KFC chicken buckets bought on Christmas, or long makizushi rolls (called ehomaki) sold at convenience stores during Setsubun. What do they have in common? These traditions didn’t stem from actual Japanese culture or roots. Instead, they were made by companies who saw an opportunity.

KFC, for example, realized there was a business opening in Japan. Christmas was a secular holiday, and only 1% of the population was reported to be Christians. With no actual Christmas traditions, the company launched its “Kentucky for Christmas” marketing campaign in 1974, until it became a traditional Japanese meal for Christmas. The same can be said about ehomaki. It was primarily eaten in the Kansai area, but groceries and convenience stores soon made it accessible for people in the Kanto area.

In the U.S., New Year’s Day is followed by Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter — a celebration for every month, but there weren’t any holidays in Japan then.

So Japanese manufacturers saw one thing: an opening, a gap — and business potential. They decided to make Valentine’s Day a thing.

Morinaga on Pioneering Valentine’s Day in Japan

The strange interpretation of Valentine’s Day in Japan goes back to the early 1960s. To fill in that marketing lull, companies began to market heart-shaped chocolates as a way for women to confess their feelings. This is something that was frowned upon at that time, as women are expected to interact passively (instead of being the ‘aggressor’) in a relationship.

Spotting a new market opportunity, the confectionery company Morinaga introduced Valentine’s Day as an American chocolate-giving tradition. Tapping into American culture, they thought it was clever to simply translate English slogans into Japanese.

That’s how, due to an unfortunate translation mistake, “Giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day is a way for men to express love to women,” turned into “Giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day is a way for women to express love to men.: And since then the tradition remained.

The marketing worked. Not only is it normal now for women to confess in Japan, but it’s heavily commercialized. You’ll see scenes in anime and manga that depicts girls saying, “大好きだ (I really like you).”

So now, chocolate sellers and departments stores make huge profits every February from selling elaborate Valentine’s sweets. But despite the large displays of chocolate, people have now turned to make homemade chocolate.

Like what you’re reading and want to explore more Japanese culture? Check out our top picks for you:

Obon: A Japanese Tradition Honoring The Ancestors’ Spirits
New Year’s Day (元日): A Time for Tradition
Culture Day: The Holiday that Commemorates Peace

Types of Japanese Valentine’s Day chocolate

Most of the time, you will see large displays of chocolates in department stores and grocery stores in Japan during the month of January. Some popular stores you can visit to get gifts are Isetan (伊勢丹), Marui (丸井), and Mitsukoshi (三越).

While Valentine’s Day isn’t just a day for romantic love, not all chocolates are viewed the same. Women are expected to give chocolates to their coworkers, classmates, friends and families.

Sure enough, it can be stressful for them to follow this ‘tradition’, and they can feel the social pressure to spend money (sometimes thousands of yen) on obligatory chocolates to avoid making anyone — including their bosses — feel left out.

Depending on the relationships they have, chocolates are divided into several types. There are also different kinds of meanings behind the chocolates given.

valentine's day in japan | Coto academy

本命チョコ (Honmei Choco): True Feeling Chocolate

本命 or honmei can be translated as “true feelings” in English. Honmei chocolate is a symbol of true love and is offered to a boyfriend or husband. Women will often prepare the chocolate by themselves, investing time and effort. This gesture represents the effort that you’re willing to put for that special someone. The honmei chocolate also serves the purpose of confessing feelings to a loved one.

Honmei chocolate is typically specialty chocolate that is fancier and costs more than regular chocolate. Instead of buying them in chocolate stores, some women will instead make them at home. Throughout the past years, confectionery shops have also started selling special molds and DIY confectionary boxes for those who do not have much time to make homemade chocolate from scratch yet still want to give it a try.

義理チョコ (Giri Choco): Obligation Chocolate

The term 義理 or giri means “obligation”. There are no romantic feelings involved. Giri chocolate can be translated to ‘obligation chocolate’. They are intended as gifts to symbolize respect and gratitude. Giri chocolate is usually chocolate that is simple and cheap, like those you would get at a supermarket. Still, because ‘friends’ and ‘colleagues’ are a broad group of people, the total cost can be quite expensive.

Giri chocolate is given from women to their male acquaintances, bosses, distant family members or work colleagues. In Japan, the custom of gift-giving is extremely important. However — and as previously mentioned — this normalized expectation can feel like a heavy social obligation. Women might be manipulated to feel guilty if they can’t afford (or simply don’t want) to buy chocolates for their coworkers.

To avoid any sexual harassment or power abuse, a lot of offices have banned this practice.

Have you heard the term 超義理チョコ (chougiri choko)? Combined with a Japanese adjective, it indicates excess, or “ultra”. Women will cache chocolate “chougiri chocolate” when they’re obliged to give to people they don’t really want to give chocolate to.

友チョコ (Tomo Choco): Friendship Chocolate

Tomo comes from the word tomodachi, which means “friend” in Japanese. Tomo Chocolate are given amongst female friends as gratitude for the friendship. It is usually not only given as gifts but these friends would spend time with each other during that particular day by having a meal together and sharing the chocolate with each other. This is usually very popular among high school girls. Tomo Chocolate may not necessarily be chocolate but can also be baked goods such as cookies and cakes.

自分チョコ (Jibun Choco): Self Chocolate

Jibun choco (自分 meaning “self”) is chocolate that you buy for yourself. Many women often feel stressed and unappreciated during this day in Japan because of the burden of buying these gifts for others — primarily men. To compensate, they would often instead just buy chocolate for themselves as a well-deserved little treat.

逆チョコ (Gyaku Choco): Reverse Chocolate

Gyaku chocolate, also known as “reverse chocolate” is a new type of gift-giving. It is usually gifted by men to women on Valentine’s day which is not typically seen in Japan. This follows the more generic way of celebrating Valentine’s day where women are one to receive gifts instead of the one giving.

Popular Japanese Phrases to Say During Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day basically being the most romantic day of the year, it is also the time for people to confess. The phrase “Happy Valentine’s Day” is not widely used in Japan, but there are many other ways to confess your love for each other. Here are some of the popular phrases usually said between couples on Valentine’s Day.

You can also check out our article on the different ways to say “I love you” in Japanese.”

バレンタインを一緒に過ごしてくれる?
バレンタインをいっしょにすごしてくれる?

Barentain o issho ni sugoshite kureru?
Meaning: Will you be my Valentine?

大好きです
だいすきです。

Daisuki desu
Meaning: I like you (a lot)

好きです。私と 付き合ってください。
すきです。わたしとつきあってください。

Suki desu. Watashi to tsukiatte kudasai.
Meaning: I like you. Will you go out with me?

僕は君のことが好きなんだ。
ぼくはきみのことがすきなんだ。

Boku wa kimi no koto ga suki nanda.
Meaning: I’m in love with you.

本当はあなたが好き。
ほんとうはあなたがすき。

Hontou wa anata ga suki.
Meaning: The truth is, I like you.

言葉であなたへの愛情は言い表せられない。
言葉であなたへのあいじょうはいいあらわせない。

Kotoba de anata e no aijou wa iiarawasenai.
Meaning: Words can’t describe my love for you.

あなたは私にとって、とても大事な存在です。
あなたはわたしにとって、とてもだいじなそんざいです。

Anata wa watashi ni totte, totemo daiji na sonzai desu.
Meaning: You mean so much to me.

Useful Japanese Vocabulary

JapaneseFuriganaPronunciationMeaning
バレンタインデーbarentain dēValentine’s Day
バレンタインカードbarentain kādoValentine’s Card
彼女かのじょkanojoGirlfriend
彼氏かれしkareshiBoyfriend
チョコレートchokorētoChocolate
キャンディーkyandīCandy
プレゼントpurezentoPresent
バラbaraRose
愛するあいするaisuruLove
ロマンスromansuRomance
キスするkisu suruKiss
抱くdakuHug
ハートhātoHeart
花束はなたばhanatabaBouquet
デートdētoDate
手紙てがみtegamiLetters

How is Valentine's Day different in Japan?

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is all about women giving chocolate to men. Exactly one month later, on March 14, they will have to return back the favor to the women with gifts, chocolates and dates — expected to be fancier and more expensive than before.

What are the different types of chocolate given on Valentine's Day in Japan?

Depending on the relationship of the giver and receiver, you’ll give different chocolate types. “Giri choco” are chocolates given out of obligation to your colleagues or coworkers. “Tomo choco” are chocolates for your friends. “Honmei choco” means “true feeling” chocolate, given as a form of love confession or romantic token to your partner or crush.

How do you ask someone out or on a date in Japanese?

You can say “好きです。私と 付き合ってください (Suki desu. Watashi to tsukiatte kudasai).”

When is White Day?

White Day in Japan is on March 14 — exactly a month after Valentine’s Day. This is when boys return the favor of receiving chocolates or sweets to girs.

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