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Valentine’s Day in Japan: A Unique Celebration


Valentine’s Day, known in Japanese as “バレンタインデー” (Barentain Dē), is a festive occasion in Japan with a blend of traditions that differ significantly from those in the West. The celebration is not only an opportunity to express romantic love but has evolved to include gestures of friendship and gratitude. Let’s delve deeper into the origins of this celebration in the land of the rising sun, exploring the fascinating customs and uncovering additional curiosities surrounding Valentine’s Day in Japan.

Origins of Valentine’s Day in Japan:

Exploring the origins of the cherished tradition of exchanging chocolates on Valentine’s Day in Japan reveals a captivating historical connection that carries a hint of intrigue. While there’s a common assertion that this tradition finds its roots in a pivotal moment in 1936, tied to a Morozoff confectionery campaign targeting foreigners, it’s crucial to acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding this claim.

According to some accounts, in 1936, Morozoff, a prominent confectionery, launched a groundbreaking advertising campaign presenting their chocolates as an opulent gift tailored explicitly for the foreign community residing in Japan. However, historical narratives from several decades ago can be elusive, subject to interpretation and varying perspectives.

The tradition of giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day in Japan truly gained traction in the 1950s and matured further in the 1970s. Mary Chocolate, a leading confectionery, was among the pioneers that contributed to the popularization of this practice through strategic marketing campaigns.

Valentine’s Day in Japan: A Chocoholic Tale of Unidirectional Affection

The Quirkiness of Valentine’s Day Japanese Style: Where Men Are the Lucky Ones

In the enchanting setting of Valentine’s Day in Japan, we stumble upon a tradition that adds a delightful twist: it’s exclusively the gentlemen who take center stage, and not with just any gift! In this love-dedicated celebration, it’s the women who showcase their culinary prowess, gifting chocolates and sweet delights to the fortunate men in their lives. Yes, you read it right! On Valentine’s Day, men are the recipients of chocolatey treats, crafted with love (or purchased, depending on the circumstances and the lady’s culinary skills).

In the vibrant tapestry of Valentine’s Day celebrations in Japan, the act of gifting chocolate transforms into a nuanced art, with each type of chocolate conveying a distinct message. Let’s explore the rich variety of chocolates exchanged during this romantic extravaganza, showcasing the intricate social dance that unfolds on this sweet occasion:

  • Honmei-choko (True Love Chocolate):

Honmei-choko takes center stage as the protagonist of romantic gestures. It’s the chocolate reserved for expressing genuine affection to a significant other. Traditionally homemade, this chocolate has recently faced competition from luxurious or personalized options available in the market, reflecting the evolving dynamics of expressing love through confectionery.

  • Tomo-choko (Friendship Chocolate):

For those embracing the camaraderie of friendship without romantic implications, Tomo-choko becomes the go-to choice. Shared among close friends, it fosters a sense of companionship without the complexities of romantic attachment. This type of chocolate is also commonly exchanged between female friends, contributing to the celebration of platonic relationships.

  • Giri-choko (Obligation Chocolate):

Giri-choko, often small and affordable, finds its way into the hands of colleagues or classmates. It carries a sense of obligatory gifting, creating a social lubricant to maintain harmonious relationships. Within this category, there’s even the “cho-giri-choko” or “ultra-obligation chocolate,” reserved for individuals who might not be the most popular, perhaps an unpopular coworker or classmate.

  • Fami-choko (Family Chocolate):

Family bonds are celebrated with Fami-choko, where each male member of the family is bestowed with a token of sweetness. This gesture reinforces familial ties and extends the celebration beyond romantic relationships, encompassing the warmth of shared familial experiences.

  • Sewa-choko (Gratitude Chocolate):

In a heartwarming display of appreciation, Sewa-choko emerges as a chocolate of gratitude. It’s a gesture extended to mentors, teachers, colleagues, or anyone deserving of thanks. This type of chocolate goes beyond the romantic realm, highlighting the broader spectrum of relationships where gratitude takes center stage.


The Role of Men on White Day:

The peculiarity of Japanese Valentine’s Day doesn’t stop with chocolate giving. One month later, on March 14, White Day (ホワイトデー, Howaito Dē) is celebrated, where men have the responsibility to reciprocate the gestures of love and friendship received on Valentine’s Day. On this day, men give gifts, mostly sweets or chocolates, to the women who gave them chocolates a month earlier. The choice of the gift and its quality often reflect the man’s feelings towards the woman. White Day creates a unique dynamic of anticipation and mutual exchange in the realm of romantic gestures.


The Controversy of Giri-choko: Godiva’s Bold Stand

Over the years, dissenting voices against the tradition of giving giri-choko to bosses and colleagues have been on the rise. Today, many women (and men) oppose this practice, considering it outdated and out of context.

On February 1, 2018, the renowned chocolate and confectionery brand Godiva sparked a significant controversy with a full-page advertisement in the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper.

The headline boldly declared, “Nihon ha, giri choko wo yameyō” (日本は、義理チョコをやめよう), roughly translating to “Japan, let’s stop giving obligatory chocolates.” The advertisement urged the Japanese to move away from the practice of giri-choko, or obligation chocolate, as we’ve discussed. The rest of the ad quoted the president of Godiva Japan saying, “Sure, it’s nice to give chocolates to someone you love, but there’s no need to give chocolates out of obligation. In fact, in the modern era we find ourselves in, it would be better not to.”

In the article text, the brand gave a voice to the thousands of women tired of the giri-choko practice and called on both men and women to leave it behind. A rather bold request, especially considering the economic impact, as chocolate sales on Valentine’s Day are significant, with a large percentage being obligation chocolates, naturally.

Godiva achieved what it aimed for: generating discussion on the topic and, of course, on the brand. After the article’s publication, there were numerous online debates (especially on social media) and many articles in the press. One could say the PR move was a success, given its widespread impact.

The overall reaction was quite positive, with many women confessing their fatigue with this practice that only caused them stress, and many men expressing support for abolishing it and ditching the obligatory chocolate exchanges at the office.

However, there were also criticisms of Godiva for using controversy as a marketing strategy. Primarily because Godiva chocolates are not typically given as obligation chocolates, given that it is a pricey brand. Thus, if the practice were to cease, Godiva’s sales wouldn’t suffer, whereas those of other brands might.

Regardless, the debate was ignited, and perhaps Japan has begun to reconsider some social practices and obligations.


Contemporary Innovations:

As customs evolve, ways of celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan also modernize. Young couples often engage in shared experiences such as romantic dinners or weekend getaways, seeking to strengthen their emotional bonds. Additionally, chocolate brands and stores release exclusive and limited-edition products to capture consumers’ attention during this season. The commercial aspect of the holiday has expanded, with the marketplace offering a wide array of themed gifts and experiences beyond traditional chocolates.


Additional Curiosities:

Chocolates for Oneself: In Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to buy chocolates for themselves during Valentine’s Day. This act, known as “jibun choco” (自分チョコ), reflects the idea of self-indulgence and enjoying small pleasures. It’s a form of self-love that has found its place in the broader celebration of Valentine’s Day.

White Chocolate: While dark chocolate remains popular, white chocolate has gained ground on Japanese Valentine’s Day. Its color is associated with purity and elegance, making it a cherished choice for expressing special feelings. The diversity in chocolate preferences showcases the evolving tastes of the Japanese populace.

Special Events in Schools and Offices: In educational institutions and workplaces, it’s common to organize special chocolate exchange events during Valentine’s Day. These events foster camaraderie and strengthen bonds among peers. It becomes a shared experience that goes beyond individual expressions of affection.


But, do you know the real origin of Valentine’s day?

Let us go back to ancient Rome, to the 3rd century AD, a turbulent time under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. Obsessed with military expansion, Claudius believed that single soldiers were more efficient in battle. By imperial decree, he prohibited marriage for young men of military age.

Valentine, a Christian priest, defied the imperial order. Driven by the conviction of love as an inalienable right, he secretly officiated marriages for couples who longed to be united. His act of rebellion ignited the flame of love in a context of darkness.

Legend has it that Valentine was captured and imprisoned for his activism. In the darkness of his cell, he met the jailer’s daughter, Julia, a young woman who suffered from blindness. Valentine’s kindness and love illuminated Julia’s life, forging a deep connection.

Before his execution, Valentine left Julia a last message, a letter full of love and hope. It is said that upon opening it, Julia experienced a miracle: her sight was restored. The letter, signed “From your Valentine”, became a symbol of the power of love to defy darkness and transform life.

Geoffrey Chaucer, a 14th-century English poet considered the father of English literature, mentioned Valentine’s Day in his work “Parliament of Foules”. In this poem, Chaucer describes a gathering of birds that takes place on February 14th, where each bird chooses a mate. This reference gives us an idea of the association that already existed between the date and romantic love in medieval times.