March 13, 2015

White Day & Valentine's Day: BEST Holidays Ever?

What is White Day??

White Day, the Japanese sequel to Valentine’s Day, is now celebrated in South Korea, Taiwan, and China (according to Wikipedia). On March 14th (one month after Valentine’s Day), gifts of white chocolate and marshmallow are given—but ONLY from men to women. Huh? How is this a sequel to Valentine’s Day, you ask?

Well, let’s back up. Japanese society traditionally asks and expects women to be timid, submissive, and deferential to their male counterparts (though modern Japanese society is evolving). In the arena of romance, the woman’s traditional role is to be passive—to BE courted rather than court. That is, on 364 days a year.

On the remaining day—Valentine’s Day—women give men chocolate. Men do not give anything to women; it is a day of strictly one-way giving. It is a chance, a single-day window, for women to be proactive about expressing their romantic interests—nay, a day when they are in fact encouraged to confess their feelings!—in this specific societally-sanctioned way.

Guys, think about this for a moment.

Japanese Valentine’s Day is the best holiday ever.

Fellows, don’t know who has a crush on you? Wait ’til February 14th. Fancy a certain lady but don’t know if she likes you? You’ll know on February 14th.

One month later, on White Day, men give white chocolate or marshmallows back to the women they like. I write “give back” since a man would be unlikely to give a gift to a woman who didn’t give him a gift on Valentine’s Day (and hence doesn’t like him romantically).

So ladies, consider this: if you gave your crush(es) chocolate on Valentine’s Day, then on March 14th, you’ll know if he (they?) returns your affections. If he does, the two of you are all set! It’s great: I like you; you like me; let’s get together.

…If only it were so simple <sigh>.

Note: I apologize for the blatant cis/heteronormative bias in this posting. The fact is I am not sure how the LGBT community in Japan treats or observes Valentine’s Day and White Day. Though my guess is unfortunately: quietly, as according to, “Japanese citizens are reportedly divided on the issue of accepting homosexuality, with a recent poll indicating that 54 percent agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society whilst 36 percent disagreed, with a big age gap.” With no legal recognition of same-sex couples, and no systematic anti-discrimination laws for employment, Japan has a long way to go.

Giri Choco and the Guys’ Dilemma

Traditional Japanese society has an obsession with giri (義理): obligation, duty, or ‘the burden of obligation.’ In their hierarchical society, obligation to and respect for one’s peers and superiors, and the settling of debts, are of supreme importance.

With this preoccupation on obligation, it wasn’t long after the introduction of Valentine’s Day customs before notions of giri entered into and complicated the holiday.

Women began to feel obliged to give chocolate not only to the objects of their affection, but also to their male bosses and co-workers. To their fathers and sons. It became the norm for women to give giri choco (義理チョコ, ‘obligatory chocolate’) to any men to whom they owed a debt of gratitude, or simply to those with whom they were friendly. Remember in grade school, when 30 students each gave Valentine’s Day cards to the 29 other students, and the classroom was buried under nearly 900 cards? It’s like that.

Of course, with this deluge of giri choco, men are now in a pickle: how can they tell which women actually like them, and which are just giving them chocolate out of obligation? On the other hand, how can women make their intentions clear to their chocolate recipients?

Back in grade school again, a precocious youth may have sneakily delivered a card in person, together with extra candy, to their crush. Similarly, Japanese women began to prepare special gifts for their romantic interests: one chocolate box bigger than all the rest. An elaborate card instead of a generic sticker. They created what is called honmei choco (from 本命, ‘true feelings’) to give to their crush, as differentiated from the giri choco they give all the other guys.

Ideally, it’s like this:

At right:

However, in practice, there are plenty of in-between chocolates. What is a guy to think if he receives this?

Could be giri, could be honmei…?

The guy’s first course of action is probably to sneak a look at chocolate she gave someone else—chocolate definitely known to be giri choco, and compare. If he received more, larger, and/or fancier chocolates, things look good; if they’re the same, obviously he’s out of luck. And if there’s no giri choco to establish a baseline, well… that’s when things get more complicated.

To Honmei or Not to Honmei 

Thanks to that societal focus on obligation and duty, the recipient of Valentine’s Day chocolate MUST give a return gift on White Day, simply as a thank-you. There are three categories:

1) He received Giri: If a guy received what was clearly giri choco from a woman, he can reciprocate with clearly giri choco. Note that even if he likes her romantically, he would just give her giri choco back, since she clearly is not interested in him.

2) He received Honmei: He must reciprocate with a gift that is just as nice—it’s only polite. But then how is she to tell if he is just giri gift-matching, or actually expressing a reciprocation of romantic interest? If the guy actually likes her back, he needs to give her honmei choco that is even nicer than what she gave him.

Image Credits:

3) He received something unclear: If a guy can’t tell if the chocolate he received was giri or honmei, he has a few options. If he isn’t romantically interested, then he simply giri gift-matches. But he must take care to match the gift he received rather closely, to avoid giving the girl the mistaken impression he likes her back. Meanwhile, if he does like her, and suspects (or blindly hopes) that what he received was honmei, then he’ll want to respond with an clearly-honmei gift, à la the White Chocolate World Monument above.

Now, what about the woman’s White Day situation—what if she receives this?

Images Credits:

Are the few bonus chocolates just approximate obligatory gift-matching, or is it a chocolate one-up indicating real romantic interest-matching?

Again, one thing the woman can try is comparing what she received with other gifts the guy gave (presumably giri chocos). However, since he only gives gifts to whomever gave him gifts the month before, they may not be so easy to find. Other than that, she’s just left with the (goodness forbid) option of communicating with him without the use of chocolate. And no one wants to do that.


In summary, the woman on Valentine’s Day has 3 options, depending on how she feels towards a man.

Image Credit:

The man on White Day has around 5 options, depending on what he received from the woman and how he feels towards her:

Image Credits:

It was all so simple before giri.

The Final Straw 

Something I just learned, and had never heard of when I lived in Japan some years ago, is the idea of sanbai-gaeshi (三倍返し), literally ‘triple return.’ According to adherents, this is a rule of thumb for all reciprocated gifts on White Day: the guy must give the girl a gift of at least triple the value of her Valentine’s Day gift to him. This means that even return giri choco on White Day will be three times as lavish as Valentine’s Day chocolate.

This sounds an awful lot like the 2 months’ salary rule of engagement rings—including the part where you can probably guess who popularized it: confectionary companies. Who, I needn’t add, are the real winners, and who are also responsible for introducing their whole custom notion of Valentine’s Day to Japan in the first place.

But sanbai-gaeshi… that’s just greedy. It completely skews the strategy for White Day, essentially making it extremely difficult (and expensive) for the man to clearly indicate, and the woman to distinguish, giri vs. honmei return chocolate/marshmallows. If he has to return obligatory gifts at 3X inflation, what can he do for honmei return gifts? 9X??

The flowchart for the man’s White Day options becomes:

Image Credits:
Peter Craine—

The Best Holidays? 

All that said: if you’re willing to put up with the possibility of ridiculous complications, at heart, this binary holiday is still AWESOME. When I lived in Japan, I had my fair share of romantic successes thanks to Valentine’s Day and White Day, and for that, I’m grateful to the confectionary companies of Japan, even if they had greed in their hearts since the beginning. After all, can we really fault a custom that has the potential to bring so much joy to people’s lives—that gives them a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have to act on unspoken feelings, and possibly to find true love? In my experience, it was worth buying marshmallows, worth navigating the devilish intertwinings of giri vs. honmei. Then again, I lived there before the utterly inane rule of sanbai-gaeshi came to pass…

In any case, no one can argue against the way it’s supposed to work:

The girl says I like you,
the boy says I like you,
and they live happily ever after,
surrounded by mountains of chocolate.
The End.

Happy White Day!

*     *     *


In case you needed more evidence that these customs can be fiendishly complicated, Ken Y-N of the website shared the results of 1,000-person survey conducted in Japan in 2007. When asked “What is your saddest Valentine’s Day memory?”, these were the top-ranked responses:

Women’s Top 10
  1. Too embarrassed to pass chocolates to the object of my desire 
  2. Only exchanged chocolates with female friends
  3. Didn’t have anyone I wanted to give true love chocolate to
  4. Bought myself chocolates and scoffed the lot
  5. Gave far too many obligation chocolates, spending more on them than true love chocolates
  6. Spent all night making chocolates
  7. Object of my desire didn’t accept my chocolates
  8. Although they were really true love chocolate, I said they were obligation chocolates
  9. Mixed up true love chocolates and obligation chocolates 
  10. Got dumped by my boyfriend
Men’s Top 10
  1. Didn’t get any chocolates 
  2. Only got obligation chocolates
  3. Got true love chocolates from a girl I didn’t like
  4. Thought obligation chocolates were true love chocolates
  5. Thought true love chocolates were obligation chocolates
  6. Got less chocolate than anyone else
  7. Only got chocolates from my mother or sister
  8. A girl I fancied gave chocolates to someone else
  9. Hand-made chocolates were disgusting 
  10. Thought I was sure to get chocolates from a girl, but she didn’t give me any
I rest my case.

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