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Valentine’s Day in Japan: Guys, Just Sit Back and Relax

Ahhhh, February 14… the day where men traditionally dish out gifts and romance.

Not so in Japan. The roles here have been reversed, and it’s all about the ladies lavishing their sweethearts with chocolates.

Guys have department stores to thank for this, as it was their “chocolate fairs” that helped cement the holiday’s popularity in the post-war era. Today, the holiday is big business.

Evidence of this popularity can be seen nearly everywhere in February. Department stores are a-buzz with theme music and throngs of women buying up every imaginable kind of chocolate… not only for lovers but also friends, co-workers, and family. Basically, there “needs” to be chocolate for each man in their life. A charming gesture that seems somewhat less so when poorly abbreviated, as was the case with the department store flyer shown below.

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As this is Japan, things are of course never as simple or as straightforward as they seem. The country places a high value on conformity and obligation. Valentine’s Day is no exception. There are “rules” about the price as well as type of chocolate to be given.

Giri-choco” (“obligation chocolates”) are meant only for dads, co-workers, bosses, and close male friends. People are generally not expected to pay more than approximately US$10 each for these.

Honmei-choco,” on the other hand, are chocolates meant for a significant other. These often come in the form of DIY or custom-made chocolate kits, rather than the cheap pre-packaged variety. As a “reward” for their efforts, many women add on a third type of purchase—“Jibun-choco”—which translates into some chocolate for themselves.

Guys are not entirely off the hook, however.

Taking this marketing ploy a step further, confectionery companies wanting in on this business helped to create White Day (March 14) in the late 1970s. The holiday has since become well-established throughout Japan.

On this uniquely Japanese holiday (read as: made up), guys need to return the favor and then some. There is more protocol to follow here, at least if you want to do it right. “Sanbai-gaeshiin” (“triple-value”) is the rule where you are expected to spend three times what your lady paid for your Valentine’s Day chocos. White chocolate is a popular choice, along with lingerie or jewelry. Keep in mind though, foreigners are often not expected (nor “punished” by their lady) for not celebrating it as there is no equivalent in another country.

Given that the Valentine’s Day “season” is stretched out over two months, total sales are huge for confectioners, not to mention other retailers. The Chocolate & Cocoa Association of Japan reported over ¥400 billion (US$3.4 billion) in annual sales of chocolate in 2013. More than half of that was spent during the weeks leading up to February 14.

  • Lakers

    Holy shmokes! I need to be in the chocolate business. I guess these women wouldn’t appreciate the petrol derivative chemical sweets that Hersey produces nowadays, huh?

  • big in japan

    not cool, peter. the whole “VD : from women to men” sign had me literally coughing up coffee all over my keyboard. i’m sending you a repair bill!