Valentine's Day in Japan: Chocolate, White Day and Romance

Valentine's Day in Japan: Chocolate, White Day and Romance

Japan loves to adopt fun things from other countries and make them their own. We see it most commonly in food, with examples like ramen and castella going from a foreign creation to a Japanese classic. We also see it in holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But what makes Valentine’s Day in Japan special?

Read on to find out!

Why is Valentine’s Day in Japan Different from Other Countries?

A Japanese man and woman in yukatas walk in front of a Japanese temple
Japanese people aren't the most expressive people in the world, so Valentine's customs create ways for people to express love more easily. Image via Unsplash

What makes Japan’s take on Valentine’s Day so different from the Western interpretation of it? Well, it might be better to first ask why. There are kind of three main reasons that Valentine’s Day is different in Japan.

First is that Valentine’s Day became popular here largely due to corporate promotion. This affects the kinds of gifts people give in general and what those gifts mean.

Second is the general personality of Japanese people. While Japan is full of expressive people, many in Japan struggle to share their true feelings with others. So, the Valentine’s Day customs in Japan create easy ways to get those romantic feelings out there.

Last is actually just the fact that Japan speaks Japanese, and (very) generally don’t speak English very well. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it means that translation is necessary when introducing something into Japan. But with translations comes the potential for translation mistakes.

So, there are common points like going out on dates, eating at nice restaurants, and gift giving. However, the culture and customs around Valentine's Day in Japan are also quite unique. 

What’s the Difference Between Valentine’s Day in Japan and the West?

Gift Giving

A box of nine heart shaped chocolates sits on a table
Like countries such as America, a lot of money is spent around Valentine's Day, but in Japan, a lot of the spending is done by women. Image via Instagram (@ina_min41)

In many countries, Valentine’s Day is an equal opportunity holiday with people  giving gifts to whoever they want. However, Valentine’s Day in Japan is a one-way gift-giving holiday, with women giving gifts to the both men in their lives and to their best gal pals.

The running theory is that this was caused by a translation mistake by the company responsible for popularizing the holiday here. The early promotions promoted this idea, and it just never went away.

Mind you, the custom has changed a bit, and you might see men give gifts too sometimes. Of course, same-sex couples tend to just exchange gifts equally. So what do men do then? We’ll touch on that later.


Earlier, we used the word ‘gifts’, but in Japan, chocolate reigns supreme over Valentine’s Day. In fact, besides maybe a fancy dinner or stuffed animal, you rarely see other gifts on Valentine’s Day. It makes sense though, with a chocolate company being the ones who made this holiday so popular.

Chocolate is so big that Japan bought a mind-blowing $741M USD in chocolate in 2023, according to Kansai University. Japanese women tend to buy a lot of chocolate of different qualities for the people around them.

A bowl of ramen with a chocolate bar on top for Valentine's Day
Japan has tons of chocolate-inspired collab for Valentine's, including this unique chocolate ramen creation that has a cocoa flavor but isn't sweet. Image via Instagram (@osake.osake)

In fact, the type and quality of the chocolate shows exactly how someone feels about you, with handmade chocolate goods or high-quality chocolate being the best. We’ll get into the levels of chocolate in a minute.

Chocolate and Valentine’s Day go so hand-in-hand here that you can find plenty of limited-edition chocolate products. For example, some gourmet ramen shops put out special chocolate ramen that are both popular and surprisingly delicious.  Meanwhile, donut chain Mister Donut did a collab with Godiva for premium chocolate donuts.

The Types and Levels of Valentine’s Day Chocolate

Like we mentioned, Japan has a few different types and levels to chocolate gifts. What you give might change based on the nature of your relationship with the other person. You might give a coworker generic chocolate, but you might give your bestie something nice. Of course, your partner or crush should get something high-quality.

Let’s look at the different levels and types.

Giri Choco

A pack of Sugar Butter Tree mini Kit Kats sit on a table
Japanese Kit Kats may blow our minds, but they usually only get handed out as obligation chocolate. Image via Instagram (@meggoloveschocolates)

Giri-Choco is often translated as “obligation chocolate”. This is chocolate that women give the men in their life, like co-workers, classmates, or bosses. But because it’s an obligation and you might have a lot of people to give it to, this chocolate is generally cheaper. Some people will just buy an affordable box of chocolate and just pass it around.

This tradition is losing popularity for many reasons. One reason is cost as it can be expensive to buy chocolate for classmates or coworkers. Another is that it can feel a bit strange in a professional environment and can affect office dynamics.

This means that people are focusing more on chocolate for romantic interests and friends. Godiva Japan even put out a public statement against giri choco in 2018.

Honmei Choco

Honmei can mean ‘heart’s desire’, so honmei choco is chocolate for that special someone or crush in your life. This chocolate generally comes in two forms. You can opt to drop some cash on luxury chocolate from fancier brands to express your love.

The other option is to make a nice handmade treat, like a chocolate roll cake. Either way, it should be nice to get across the “I REALLY like you… like, more than a friend” idea.

A chocolate ring cake with icing and a batch of chocolate puffs sit in a basket
Handmade really is the best way to go to impress a crush or to show some love to your friends. Image via Instagram (@ecca_ecca)

Tomo Choco

As you know from our blog about the word ‘friend’ in Japanese, the kanji for tomo means friend. This level of chocolate is for your family or friends, particularly your female friends. This chocolate is nicer than giri choco but not as nice as honmei choco.

This makes it easier as you’re only buying or baking for a handful of people. For example, instead of a whole roll cake for your boo thang, you can give slices of roll cake for friends. Whether buying or baking, it’s a cute way to say, “Thank you for being a friend.”

Jibun Choco

Jibun means ‘self’, so this category is chocolate that you buy (or make) for yourself on Valentine’s. It’s all about treating yourself to tasty, seasonal chocolate items. While you’re out buying chocolate for your friends or significant others, you might as well treat yourself to something nice, right?

A basket of fries with a double chocolate sauce on top for a Valentine's treat
You can treat yourself to seasonal menu items, like these chocolate-covered fries from McDonalds a few years ago.

Gyaku Choco

Gyaku means ‘reverse’, and this type reverses gender norms, with men giving chocolate to women. This type is becoming more popular as more people embrace a more gender-neutral version of the holiday.  

White Day

So, what about the men? Well, Valentine’s Day has a sister holiday here on March 14th. White Day was created by the Japanese marshmallow industry in 1977 as Marshmallow Day, started as a day for men to express their feelings by giving gifts to repay the kindness they received.

However, the marshmallow company couldn’t seem to keep their hold because the focus shifted over to white chocolate. In the 80s, Marshmallow Day turned into White Day, with white representing pure love. However, even white chocolate doesn’t have quite the hold that chocolate has on Valentine’s, with more typical gifts being on the table as well.

A plate of pancakes with heart-shaped cakes, chocolate, fruit and cream on top
Plenty of cafes and dessert places make a White Day menu, perfect for a date. Image via Instagram (@pancakes_300days_m_)

One unique point is that White Day isn’t really about men giving chocolate to women. It’s about men repaying the gift they received, and what they gift back determines how he feels about the person.

The general rule is that, if you want to show that you like someone back, you’ll give a gift that is 2-3 times the value of the original gift. For example, if a guy receives a honmei choco gift of $50 USD, he should give a gift worth about $150 USD to repay it.

A gift of equal value gives the idea that you appreciate it, but you might have to explain whether or not you’re interested. No gift is basically like saying, “Never talk to me again.” So, it’s best to at least give something back, even if it’s not that nice.

While White Day isn’t as big as Valentine’s Day, it has actually spread to other countries in the area, like South Korea and Taiwan.

A Valentine's Day Japanese school lunch of chowder, a veggie mix and chocolate bread on a tray with milk
Even many schools in Japan get into the Valentine's spirit with treats like chocolate bread featured in school lunch.

And that’s Valentine’s Day in Japan! Would you give giri choco or would you rebel against it? Let us know with a comment!

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