At first glance, Valentine’s Day in Japan seems pretty sexist. And that’s because it is. Women are expected to give chocolate to men, and men aren’t expected to give anything in return. However, the equalizing factor in Japan is a second holiday called White Day (ホワイトデー) that reverses the gifting roles. Just as the Valentine holiday is essentially a marketing gimmick of romantic obligation in the US, Japan has manged to double the profitability of the tradition by splitting the ritual gift giving into two separate events. Let me explain how it works.
Valentine’s Day arrives in Japan on the standard February 14th with all the hearts and Cupid imagery that you’re familiar with. The social expectation on this day is the women will give gifts, most likely chocolates. But the ladies aren’t just expected to give chocolates to their boyfriend/husband/lover guy; they’re also supposed to give chocolates to friends and coworkers too. Instead of being motivated by purely romantic notions, Valentine’s chocolate can be expected out of various levels of social obligation. The prime example is called girichoko (義理チョコ – literally “obligatory chocolate”), the ritual of giving chocolate to your male coworkers, just to be polite. This term breaks down to giri (義理), meaning “obligation”, and choko (チョコ), meaning “chocolate”, just like it sounds.
Quick tangent; when talking about Japanese society, the concept giri (義理) is very important. This social obligation compels one to act in accordance with the rules, but is thought to often conflict with ninjō (人情), meaning human emotion, or more simply one’s personal feelings. You can see this conflict between duty and passion in lots of Japanese stories, from classic samurai tales to modern Japanese dramas. The western equivalent can best be illustrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (or my favorite version, West Side Story), where the protagonists are torn between their feelings of love for each other and their responsibility to their respective families. But whereas personal feelings (ninjō) tend to win out fairly easily in western stories, the characters’ sense of duty (giri) proves to be stronger in Japanese fiction. Understanding the giri vs. ninjō dynamic is critical to understanding individuals’ motivations in Japanese society, both in literature and in real life. Now back to chocolate.
So ladies are expected to give girichoko to their coworkers, without any implication of romantic interest. They might also give chocolate to their friends, which is called tomochoko (友チョコ – friend chocolate). This is already a rather hefty coco-burden, and we haven’t even gotten to honmeichoko (本命チョコ), the chocolate you give to your true love. This word breaks down to honmei (本命), meaning favorite or “one’s heart’s desire”, and choko (チョコ), again just meaning “chocolate”.
It seems plausible that a festively inclined young lady might end up buying a lot of candy for Valentine’s, and from what I’ve read, the confectioners are really counting on that. (Apparently Japanese chocolate companies make about half of their annual sales during the Valentine’s season. They’re cuckoo for Cocoa Profits.) And if that wasn’t enough of a hassle, homemade chocolates are considered preferable to store bought items, so often times ladies will spend a weekend day creating confectionary goodness to distribute on the holiday. This homemade chocolate is sometimes called dekochoko (デコチョコ), or “decoration chocolate”.
Now, it’s not unheard of that a man might step up and give his girlfriend a gift on Valentine’s Day, but it’s definitely not the norm. This is called gyakuchoko (逆チョコ – literally “reverse chocolate”) and as the name indicates, it’s considered the opposite of social expectation. Whereas ladies are almost obligated to give chocolate, the guy who reciprocates on Valentine’s Day is considered funny or weird.
It’s not until one month later that the roles reverse. On March 14th comes White Day (ホワイトデー), the male answer to Valentine’s, the day when men return the gifting favor. Social obligation dictates that men get something for all the ladies who gave him gifts, so most of the time these gifts also carry no romantic sentiment.
Apparently White Day was first proposed in the 1970’s by a Fukuoka marshmallow company. The idea was that it was only fair for men to give something back to the women that had been so generous to them. And of course, the best way to do that was by buying marshmallows. It was originally introduced as “Marshmallow Day” (マシュマロデー), but the name changed rather quickly thereafter. These days, typical White Day gifts included cookies, white chocolate, and even dark chocolate. In the case of one’s wife or girlfriend, a man might purchase a non-edible gift, like jewelry or lingerie; the latter of which is probably also white. The holiday is celebrated outside of Japan as well, in Taiwan and South Korea.
Speaking of South Korea, they apparently take this tradition one step further, with a third holiday called “Black Day”. Basically like an anti-Valentine’s Day, Black Day is a day for single people. It occurs on April 14th, following the same monthly pattern, and involves single people get together to eat jajangmyeon, a noodle dish with a black bean sauce.
On last thing, it’s worth mentioning that Valentine’s Day isn’t really the big romantic holiday in Japan. That would be Christmas Eve. This is probably why Japan has a seemingly odd attachment to Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ), the only way to end a romantic dinner on December 24th. Christmas Eve is the prime time for lovin’. Valentine’s Day and White Day take a backseat as (only slightly more) transparent corporate conventions for unloading chocolate.