February 14 is worldwide Valentine's day. Like many Western holidays, Valentine's day was also brought to Japan during the second half of the twentieth century. But this tradition has been slightly modified for the Japanese.
As a matter of fact, Valentine's Day in Japan takes place in two stages:
- Valentine's Day (on February 14, initiated around 1958)
- White Day (on March 14, a month later, initiated during the 1970's)
Valentine's Day (gifts from women to men)
While in the West, it's rather men who offer flowers, gifts and invite their wives to the restaurant, in Japan it's women who give chocolates to men. There are two main types of gift chocolate:
- giri-choco (義理 チョコ, literally "courtesy chocolate") offered to men they're frequently around but with whom they're unfamiliar, such as work colleagues. It's rather a sign of politeness or social obligation. Generally, the giri-choco is 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 must be in a heart-shaped box. Honmei-choco has more value if it is handmade by the woman who offers it. It's often seen in Japanese movies or drama.
Note that there is also a third type of gifts, tomo-choco (友 チョコ, "friendship chocolate") that girls offer to to other girls. This tradition is most prevalent in middle and high schools.
All this happens during the day; the romantic evening is usually reserved for December 24 (read my post about Christmas in Japan).
It is said that because Japanese women are too shy, on Valentine's Day (バレンタインデー) they can express their feelings through chocolate. Commercially, during the week before Valentine's Day, Japanese industry sells more than 10% of the chocolate sold during the year.
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 the woman a gift 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, the value of the gift from the men must be twice or thrice the one received chocolates at Valentine's Day (it's called 三 倍 返し / sanbaigaeshi). Moreover, White Day in Japan is a party perhaps even more commercial than Valentine's Day, since it was directly inspired by trading companies to increase sales.
Note that the tradition of White Day is also found in South Korea, Taiwan and parts of China.