Sunday, February 14, 2021

Be My (Japanese) Valentine

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Whether you love it, hate it, or largely ignore it, February 14 is Valentine's Day, and--like just about every thing else--we do it a little bit differently in Japan. 

Desserts like this show up everywhere as Valentine's Day approaches

Valentine's Day became "a thing" in Japan in the 1950s--one of many post-war imports that has thrived in Japan's gifts-and-sweets-loving culture.  

As in the United States and elsewhere, the "holiday" was promoted primarily by confectioners, who hoped to use the love-themed observance to gain a post-larger-holiday sales boost. However, the Japanese marketers chose to market almost exclusively to women, encouraging them to buy chocolates and other treats for the men in their lives (or, in some cases, the men they *wanted* in their lives).

Passion Fruit KitKat - for the one you love...

The marketing worked--perhaps too well--and Valentine's Day became a major gift-buying occasion in Japan . . . but only for women.

Yep, you heard me correctly. In Japan, Valentine's Day is a day when women buy (or bake) gifts for men (and sometimes, other women)

A Valentine's offering from Ginza Cosy Corner

Valentine's gifts are usually edible, but can include other things as well, and fall into one of three categories:

本命  チョコ (honmei choco): "Love chocolates" - given to a person for whom a woman has romantic feelings. It's generally considered bad form to give honmei choco to multiple people, and this type of gift is usually fancier and more expensive than the other types.

友 チョコ (tomo choco): "Friend chocolates" - usually given by women to other women, or to men, whom the giver likes in a non-romantic context. These vary in size, quality, and fanciness, but are not usually large--in Japan, even a single chocolate or a single cookie is considered more than satisfactory to show the recipient he or she is special.

Sakura (cherry blossom) Pocky . . . for the one you don't quite love.

義理 チョコ (giri choco): "The chocolates of obligation" - given to co-workers, family members, and others to whom the giver owes a social debt. These typically come in boxes, but individually-wrapped, so they can be handed out at the office or workplace. However, where a large difference in social standing (and salary) exists, and the giver stands in the higher social position, giri choco may take the form of small, beautifully-wrapped boxes containing several chocolates, specially made for this purpose and sold only at this time of year.

KitKat Ruby - naturally pink, because it's made with ruby chocolate

Now, some of you may be thinking it a little unfair (or awesome, depending on your orientation) that women must do all the Valentine's buying and giving, while men get showered in obligation-free chocolates.


Exactly one month from today, on March 14, Japan celebrates White Day--Valentine's masculine mirror-twin, upon which men are obligated to give chocolates (or other edible gifts) to all of the women in their lives.

The Valentine's "sweet sampler" at Paul in Kagurazaka

Like Valentine's Day, White Day was the brainchild of Japanese confectioners, who decided it was unfair that men should benefit from Valentine's Day without having to purchase chocolates, pastries, and other treats in return. (The jury is out as to whether the confectioners considered it unfair to the *men* or to their own pocketbooks...but in either case, justice was swiftly served--with a side of frosting.) 

Strawberry Love Tart. Because White Day revenge is sweet indeed.

Since 1978, when the second holiday was invented, March 14--White Day--has been "Valentine's Payback" in Japan, when men have precisely the same three choc-obligations that women have a month before . . . and, usually, the duty to take their wives or girlfriends out to sample the wide variety of special parfaits and sundaes on many restaurant menus, besides.


January/February is also strawberry season in Japan - making things like this a regular late-winter sight.

And now you know how we do Valentine's in Japan.


  1. Somehow it seems to me that in Japan things are always done more elegantly than elsewhere. I'm in favor!

  2. Susan, I think I told you once about the Valentine's Day I spent in Tokyo on a business trip. I never heard so much giggling in any office before in my life. The women were laughing about what fun they were having and the men were laughing at the tricks the women were playing on the other men. We didn't get a lot of work done. It was the mid-80s. It killed my notion of the then-storied Japanese productivity.

  3. I'm with Michael on the elegance of all things Japanese, Susan. Especially the confections. I've no doubt I'd have to be a mountain climber to stay fit in the face of oh so many sweet temptations.