Valentine's Day in Japan: Giri vs Honmei Choco

by Louie Anne Batac

Wait, only women give chocolate?

Some of us love Valentine's Day and many of us dread it, regardless of relationship status. It usually calls for a combination of long-term planning (or last-minute, creative problem-solving) and a pocket of cash to get through it all lest you be perceived as unromantic by your other half. If today finds you still searching for unique gift ideas for your sweetheart, embrace your Japanese alter-ego now! You might be intrigued to know that in Japan, Valentine's Day is celebrated very differently: it is the women who present gifts to men. If this sounds confusing, read on to learn about how it’s actually celebrated in the country so you can do Valentine's Day the Japanese way!

Though adopted from the West, Valentine’s Day is very popular. By mid-January, the holiday items that once lined the shelves are replaced with beautifully-wrapped sweets and cocoa-accented pastries. It’s quite the affair! Pink-coated pavilions draw young girls and women to tiers of fancy, affordable chocolate of different themes and characters, and handsome boxes by high-end chocolatiers are enclosed in displays. Every grocery store, shopping mall and convenience store is guaranteed to have a section reserved for St. Valentine. It is estimated that over $500 million is spent on Valentine’s chocolate every year in Japan, less than a third of what we spend in the U.S. on candy on this day!

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What in the world is obligatory chocolate?

As is customary in Japanese tradition where each element has a purpose and audience, careful consideration is made for the selection and purchase of Valentine’s chocolate. It’s very important to understand the difference between Giri and Honmei chocolate. Giri choco (義理チョコ, or “obligatory chocolate") is given to male co-workers or colleagues in expression of friendship, gratitude, or indebtedness, whereas Honmei choco (本命チョコ, or “true love chocolate") is inspired by romantic interest and given to husbands, boyfriends, or a potential love interest as a form of Valentine's Day confession, aka, kokuhaku. Some women even prefer to make honmei chocolate on their own, rather than purchasing it from a store, as an expression of their devotion. Special molds and DIY confectionary boxes are all part of the effort to craft homemade chocolate. Whether you’re the giver or receiver, don’t get your signals crossed!

giri choco

Giri choco is more affordable and meant for coworkers and friends.

chocolate display

Honmei choco, intended for sweethearts, on display.

Nowadays though, as times change there are even more "types" of valentine's day chocolate. In recent years tomo choco or "friend chocolate" has become more and more common. With tomo choco, it's not uncommon for women and girls to give them to their female friends too, and sometimes even men take part in gifting tomo choco on Valentine's Day. After all, no one wants to miss out on enjoying some yummy chocolate,

Wait, there's more!

One more thing to keep in mind about Japan’s way of celebrating the day of Love: guys, you’re not entirely off the hook! Exactly one month later, on March 14th, men are expected to return gifts to women, and if it’s for romance, an extra special token of affection should accompany the chocolate and flowers. The sweets for this occasion, known as White Day (ホワイトデー), are typically wrapped in white and blue, coincidentally similar to a Tiffany box! But even if you were the recipient of giri choco or tomo choco, know that it's appropriate to return the gift with something of roughly equivalent value.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of Japanese Valentine's Day customs. But if this all sounds too complicated, I recommend you get a monthly subscription with Bokksu! Who wouldn’t love to get something in the mail every month? It’s a sure-fire way to get back into your sweetie’s graces.


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Originally published on Feb. 14, 2017

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