All around the world, Valentine’s Day has been and continues to be a special occasion to celebrate with your significant other, and create quality memories with that special someone in your life. Naturally, every country has its own unique Valentine’s Day customs and traditions, and Japan is no different. In this article, we’ll take you through the significance of Celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan, the specific traditions this country has set up, and of course, talk a bit about appropriate Valentine’s Day gifts in Japanese culture.
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How Valentine’s Day in Japan became what it is today
Although Valentine’s Day is said to have originated in the West, it rapidly took over the rest of the world, spreading across different countries like wildfire. It grew to be so popular that nowadays, most countries have established their own unique Valentine’s Day traditions. And Japan is no exception.
However, in Japan, this special holiday of love evolved a little differently than in its Western counterparts. Like in many other countries, Valentine’s Day was popularized in Japan during the 1950s through sales and marketing campaigns. During that time, selling heart-shaped chocolates, and hosting Valentine’s Day Sale events became something of a trend that caught on well across the country, and continues to occur to this day.
The notable difference, though, was that while most Western stores were targeting men and pressuring them to show their love and appreciation for that special someone, Japanese stores were addressing women. In fact, the main difference between the Valentine’s Day most of us are accustomed to, and the V-Day in Japan is that it’s the girls who offer gifts to men.
Ever since the beginning of this trending holiday, Japanese women have been encouraged to purchase chocolates and give them to their partner or the person they secretly have a crush on. While some sources say that this was the result of an honest mistake in interpreting this imported Western holiday, others believe the inversion of roles was intentional on the part of the advertising companies.
To this day, giving chocolate is pretty standard all across the country, with thousands of women going into a frenzy as February 14th approaches, all to find the perfect chocolates to express their love and desire to that one person in their lives. Yes, Japanese tradition is big on the chocolate part (don’t worry, we’ll get into that a little later in this article), and tends to favor sweets instead of flowers, jewelry, or other traditional Western Valentine’s Day gifts.
At first glance, this reversal of roles can throw one off, particularly if they’re used to the Western tradition of men usually gifting and surprising women on this special day. Don’t worry, while the woman takes control during Valentine’s Day per se, the effort and love isn’t one-sided, and the male usually reciprocates with a better gift on White Day (a fascinating Japanese tradition, in its own right). Celebrated on March the 14th, precisely one month after Valentine’s Day, White Day isn’t as strict on the types of gifts offered by men, in return.
Finally, even though traditionally aimed at straight couples, in more recent years, Japanese Valentine’s Day has become quite popular among the LGBT community, as well. Particularly among the youth of Japan, for whom declaring your love to your crush can be a monumental task, Valentine’s Day offers an excellent opportunity to reveal your feelings. In spite of the traditionally assigned gender roles of Valentine’s Day in Japan, it’s important to remember that ultimately, the main point of the holiday is love and surprising your significant other.
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Dating a Japanese Woman - Should you expect a gift?
Interestingly enough, no. Although traditionally, Japanese women will give chocolates to their male Japanese partners, the same is not true for relationships between a Japanese woman and a foreigner. According to the Japanese women we asked in a recent survey, when dating a foreigner, there’s a tendency to appropriate Western traditions for Valentine’s Day. So in that case, it’s likely that your female Japanese partner will expect a gift to show your love and desire both on Valentine’s Day, and the Japanese White Day. Though, of course, these traditions vary from couple to couple!
In any case, surprising the special Japanese lady in your life is a great way to show your appreciation for her, not to mention impress her, especially if she’s not expecting it. So, gifting your partner some chocolates or some other sweet little treat on Valentine’s Day can score you some major points, especially since she probably won’t be expecting it.
What’s the average Valentine’s Day budget?
As with any major holiday, one of the most interesting aspects of Valentine’s Day in Japan is the allocated budget. Although not necessarily reflective of one’s love, many people are interested to know how much their partner will be spending on them on this special day, and how that compares to the average.
It’s not surprising to learn that the current global Covid-19 pandemic has affected Valentine’s Day in Japan. Valentine’s Day is an inherently social holiday, but since most of us have not been socializing much lately, the average price spent on V-Day has gone down. The average budget for Valentine’s Day has decreased, going from 4,582 yen ($41.63) to 4,448 yen (roughly $40). Although the difference isn’t significant, it’s a slight relief for our bank accounts.
Valentine’s Day is usually meant to be celebrated with one person, however, it’s not at all uncommon for Japanese women to offer chocolates to multiple people. In fact, it’s customary to offer treats to your classmates or office colleagues, as well as your significant other. Just something to keep in mind in case you are wondering why that one special person is passing out chocolates like Willy Wonka. Those woman spend roughly 4,500 yen with the majority of their budget going to chocolates bought for their romantic interest (roughly 2,200 yen).
Just to recap, on average most Japanese Woman spend between 1,200 and 1,700 yen (so roughly between $10 and $15) on additional treats for their family, friends, and co-workers. While the gifts for their romantic interest usually average around 2000 - 2500 yen($20-$23).
However, as with any other holiday, it’s not the cost that truly counts, but the intention behind the gesture. It’s not uncommon for Japanese women to skip out on purchasing the chocolate for their family and friends, and opting to make it themselves. In fact, the tradition of baking sweet treats for your loved ones, tomo choco, is quite big in Japan.
Honmei-choco vs. giri-choco: what’s the difference?
Typically, Japanese women will stock up on two types of Japanese chocolate in the days leading up to Valentine’s. They’ll look for giri-choco and honmei-choco. If you plan on spending Valentine’s Day in Japan, we suggest you get yourself acquainted with both these terms, as they have very different significance, and so you need to understand them, so as to avoid an awkward situation.
Honmei-choco: what is it, and who is it for?
In Japanese, the worm “honmei” translates roughly to “true feeling”, while the term “choco” naturally stands for chocolate. This is why honmei-choco usually refers to more expensive, fancier chocolate that one would buy for a significant other, or a potential romantic interest. Normally, the receiver will be able to distinguish between honmei-choco and giri-choco by the quality of the chocolates, as well as the relationship between himself and the giver.
Another important distinction between honmei-choco and giri-choco is that honmei-choco may also be homemade. While in some cultures, this can be interpreted as cheap, it holds great value in Japanese customs. Allegedly, since the giver prepared the chocolates herself, it means that the receiver is that much closer to her heart. So, in other words, the effort put in preparing the gift equates the love the giver nurtures for the recipient.
Sometimes, honmei-choco might also be accompanied by a love declaration of some sort. Traditionally, this is where the female giver will confess their love, and ask the receiver to be their boyfriend. This can be done face to face, but also through a note attached to the gift. For more information on what can possibly come from this confession, be sure to check out our Ultimate guide to Marriage in Japan.
However, it’s not mandatory, so just because a Valentine’s Day gift lacks a declaration of love, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the giver isn’t interested in you romantically. As we’ve seen, this is usually dictated by various subtleties, such as the type of chocolates offered.
Giri-choco: What about them? What are they?
So, if honmei-choco is a type of fancy chocolate you offer a romantic interest, giri-choco is perfectly platonic. Since “giri” means “obligation” in Japanese, giri-choco are chocolates you sort of have to give to important people in your life, but not your significant other.
Usually, giri-choco is less expensive, less fancy chocolate that a woman will offer to her colleagues, bosses, friends, family members, and pretty much anyone she’s not romantically involved with (and doesn’t wish to be). Interestingly enough, this actually often ends up being the pricier purchase on Valentine’s Day, especially if the woman in question has a lot of co-workers or obligations.
Because giri-choco can end up costing thousands of yen, some women choose to skip this, or keep their chocolate-gifting to a minimum by only including a handful of closer friends. It’s not unusual for a woman to only treat a select few of her social circle, to cut down costs. However, it’s generally considered bad manners to show up at work without chocolates for your male colleagues, so we don’t suggest skipping that!
In fact, it’s so bad to skip out on Valentine’s Day gifts for your colleagues that the holiday has become something of a pressure source for many Japanese women. Like most other holidays, in some cases, it has gone from a pleasure to a social obligation that often costs women a lot of money and causes more stress than enjoyment. For this reason, some Japanese companies have actually banned celebrating Valentine’s Day in the office, to reduce pressure on their female employees. It’s also considered as disruptive in some cases, and there have been numerous calls for ending this whole chocolate-giving obligation, some from big names in the industry, such as renowned Belgian chocolate manufacturer Godiva.
Would you rather just skip valentines chocolates? Check out Japan's other holiday in our Ultimate Guide to White Day in Japan!
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Tomo-choco: a newer trend
Traditionally, on Valentine’s Day, you’re either offering honmei-choco or giri-choco. However, in more recent years, the holiday has expanded to include and honor other types of relationships, as well.
Tomo-choco isn’t as old a tradition as, say, honmei-choco, but it’s nevertheless a beloved and important trend. Coming from the Japanese word for “friend” (“tomodachi”), tomo-choco is usually chocolate or some other sort of treat that Japanese women give their female friends.
Sometimes, however, a woman won’t distinguish between tomo-choco or giri-choco, opting for the same type of sweet for both male and female friends or co-workers. And because tomo-choco and giri-choco can end up costing a pretty penny, don’t worry, it’s not considered rude to only offer one piece of chocolate, or an individually-wrapped cookie, or something a bit smaller like that, to members of your social circle. These can also be homemade, as it is not usually mistaken for honmei-choco or a declaration of love, since you’re gifting the same to a large number of people in the same circle.
Tomo-choco is a newer tradition, particularly popular among kindergarteners and school girls, who traditionally bake chocolatey goods (often with the help of a parent) for their classmates on February the 14th.
Gyaku-choco: a reversal of tradition…
Remember how we mentioned that some Japanese women might expect chocolates or treats on Valentine’s Day, regardless of tradition? This is what we call gyaku-choco. Literally translating to “reverse chocolate”, gyaku-choco are treats that men usually offer their female counterparts, whether in a romantic gesture, or in a platonic, collegial one.
Although a man may offer chocolates for Valentine’s Day, this usually won’t mean he doesn’t have to come up with a gift on White Day, subsequently, as well.
Jibun-choco: love yourself!
Last but not least, we’ve got the chocolates Japanese women buy or bake for themselves, as a symbol of self-love and appreciation. Usually, Valentine’s Day is considered a great occasion not only for appreciating others in your life, but also for treating yourself a little.
Alternatively, you can treat yourself to something you’ve been needing, a day at the spa maybe, or anything else that would put a smile on your face.
Is it better to bake or buy your Valentine’s Day chocolates?
As we’ve seen, the answer to this depends on several factors. Easily the most obvious reason why some Japanese women may choose to bake their own treats rather than buy them is the cost factor. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, most Japanese stores will heavily feature special and unusual baking items, confectionery guides, and other cutesy add-ons, such as sprinkles. So baking your own gifts is made accessible to all, and is considered preferable by many Japanese women.
Secondly, there is the sentimental value of baking your own Valentine’s Day treats, as your partner or potential boyfriend may appreciate the effort more than the price tag. All in all, baking your own Valentine’s chocolates can be a great way to express how much you care about someone in a unique and tasty way.
However, baking your own gifts does carry some downsides. It’s definitely more time-consuming and, in many cases, can prove quite messy. So at the end of the day, whether or not you opt for baking the goods yourself depends on a variety of factors, such as time availability, culinary expertise, financial status, and so on.
One thing we would advise, however, is to only get baking if it’s something you enjoy doing. Otherwise, the whole process will only end up annoying you more, and generating stress, which ultimately defeats the purpose of Valentine’s Day, we think.
Are there alternatives to chocolates?
While it’s traditional to offer chocolates for Valentine’s Day, recent years have seen a lot more versatility in Japanese customs. For example, nowadays, it’s not that uncommon for people to gift other items, such as clothing, accessories, jewelry, and so on. So there are some alternatives, and usually, how well they’re received will depend on the relationship and the receiver themselves. For example, if instead of offering sweets to your husband, you offer them a watch or some other gift, surely they will appreciate the gesture and the love behind it. However, since other types of gifts tend to run more expensive than chocolates, we suggest sticking to sweets for your social circle!
Still not convinced? Explore other sweets in our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets!
Where can you buy Valentine’s Day gifts?
Naturally, the local supermarket is always an option, but if you want to go that extra mile for the special person in your life, why not surprise them by ordering some treats from famous chocolatiers?
In Tokyo, for example, there’s no shortage of great chocolate shops, like Chocolat Bel Amer or Mont St. Clair. These chocolate connoisseurs offer great selections of delightful, tasty custom-made chocolate. They may be a little more on the pricey side, but they are well worth it for showing that special someone how much you care!
Alternatively, if you want your gift to be more diverse than that, you can order a gift basket or a Valentine’s Day bouquet of flowers from sites like Gift Baskets Japan, for a more Westernized version of the holiday!
Fortunately for you, since Valentine’s Day is such a big holiday in Japan, there will be no shortage of Valentine’s Day-themed gift ideas in your local stores, in the weeks running up to February the 14th. So you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
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Valentine’s Day Greetings - what you need to know
As in any other culture, there’s a given set of traditional phrases customary to Valentine’s Day in Japan. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of these, so you can respond in kind! Additionally, if you are interested in expanding the conversation further, then check out our Top 40 Japanese Slang words article.
1. Aitai desu （あいたいです） - translating to “I want to meet you”, this can be a good first step towards clarifying your feelings to a person.
2. Suki desu. Tsukiatte kudasai（すきです。つきあって） - by far the most common and easiest Valentine’s Day phrase, this one literally translates to “I like you, can we start seeing each other?”. A simpler alternative to this would be “Anata ga daisuki desu”, which means “I like you very much”.
3. Watashi mo daisuki desu （わたしもだいすきです）- translating to “I like you too”, this is the phrase you will need to know, in case you receive a love declaration on this special day.
4. Aitakatta （あいたかった）- meaning “I wanted to meet you”, but implies that "I missed you." For some, Valentine’s Day can be a great opportunity to patch things over with an ex-lover, if this is the case, this phrase is perfect.
5. Ai shiteru （あいしてる）- lastly, the most important and heartwarming declaration you can give someone - “I love you”.
Ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Japan?
Granted, Valentine’s Day in Japan can seem a little bit unusual, particularly if you’re used to the Western version of the holiday. Still, we hope that this thorough guide to celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan has got you ready for next February the 14th. Now, hopefully, you know everything there is to know about Valentine’s Day chocolates, gifting traditions, and national do’s and don’ts on this special day.
So, what chocolates are you giving this Valentine’s Day?