Valentine’s Day is celebrated worldwide on February 14. Like many Western holidays, Valentine's Day was also brought to Japan during the second half of the twentieth century. But Japanese people twisted this tradition to add another custom.
As a matter of fact, Valentine's Day in Japan takes place in two steps:
- Valentine's Day (on February 14, initiated around 1958, by the confectionary brand Morinaga 森永);
- White Day (on March 14, a month later, initiated during the 1970's).
Valentine's Day (gifts from women to men)
Whereas in the West, the burden of the gifts, flowers and invitation to restaurants rather lies on men, in Japan on the contrary, women must give men chocolates. There are two main types of chocolate gifts:
- giri-choco (義理 チョコ, literally "courtesy chocolate") offered to men they interact with frequently but with whom they are not familiar, such as work colleagues. It is considered an act of politeness or social obligation. The giri-choco is generally bought in stores.
- honmei-choco (本命 チョコ, translatable as "chocolate of destiny") that women reserve for the man who matters most to them. These chocolates should be handed in a heart-shaped box and they carry a meaning closer to what is considered a love relationship in the Western world. The significance of honmei-choco is stronger if the woman made them herself. They are part of classic love declaration scenes in Japanese movies or drama.
Note that there is also a third type of gift, tomo-choco (友 チョコ, "friendship chocolate") that girls offer to other girls. This tradition is most prevalent in middle and high schools.
Some even imagined jibun-choco (自分チョコ, "chocolates for myself") that are naturally targeting single people! Recent studies even show that their importance is rapidly increasing: in 2019, Japanese women spent four times the giri-choco amount in chocolates for themselves.
Offering gifts is only a daytime activity; the romantic evening is usually reserved for December 24 (Christmas in Japan is not really dedicated to family).
Valentine's Day (バレンタインデー) is said to allow Japanese women, who are supposed to be extremely shy, to express their feelings through chocolate. As far as business is concerned, in the week preceding Valentine's Day, Japanese sweets industry sells more than 10% of the chocolate sold during the year.
Many shops and big brands take this opportunity to advertise with special decorations (mostly in red-colored declinations) during this time of the year, especially in big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto. In Tokyo area, the transportation company Keikyu has even a special "love train" running in February.
As for Tokyo Tower, a special event is held on February 14 evening between 4 p. m. and 9 p. m. It is possible to climb the 600 stairs to the top of the tower and enjoy the romantic sunset on the capital.
White Day (gifts from men to women)
White Day, on March 14th, is the day when men who received chocolate on Valentine's Day should offer a present in return. It may be (white) chocolate or cookies / marshmallows. If they got honmei-choco, they should rather offer jewelry or (white) lingerie. Japanese people don't offer present cards, neither on Valentine's Day nor on White Day.
Traditionally, men must offer a gift whose value is twice or thrice than those of the chocolates they received for Valentine's Day (it's called 三 倍 返し / sanbaigaeshi). Moreover, White Day in Japan may be a celebration even more business oriented than Valentine's Day, since it was directly inspired by trading companies to increase sales. It is said that White Day was created in 1977 by Ishimura Manseido, a marshmallows shop located in Fukuoka.
Note that the tradition of White Day is also found in South Korea, Taiwan and some parts of China.
For the anecdote, there is even a third event named "Black Day," on April 14. This day is dedicated to single people, and originates from a Korean custom. In South-Korea, single people gather to eat "Jajangmyeon," a noodle dish with black beans salsa. In Japan, it extended to any black food or drink. Time will tell if this new custom takes roots in the archipelago.