Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and stores are geared up to cater to that special time when women give their romantic others a sweet treat and, in the Japanese workplace, offer colleagues tasty tidbits out of gratitude.

And chocolate is the operative word.

Even in recession-hit Japan, woman are still splurging on the sweet, according to a recent survey.

Why is chocolate the gift of choice and when did this custom begin?

Following are questions and answers about the Valentine’s Day tradition:

Where and when did Valentine’s Day originate?

On Feb. 14, 270, a bishop named Valentine was arrested and executed.

He had gone against the Roman emperor’s edict that soldiers were not allowed to marry, and, touched by their desires to wed, helped many troops tie the knot.

Originally Feb. 14 was marked by religious rites to commemorate the martyr’s death.

From around the 14th century, young people started using the date as an occasion to declare their love, propose marriage and offer gifts. After February comes spring and the ritual renewal of life, as witnessed in bird song and blossoms.

Is Valentine’s Day observed differently in Japan compared with other parts of the world?

In some ways. Unlike many nations in the West, where sweets are mutually given by couples to each other, the tradition in Japan, as well as South Korea, is for women to give men gifts.

In North America, boys and girls exchange cards on the day. In adulthood, mainly men give gifts, including flowers and chocolate, to women.

In Europe, men often give flowers and spring for deluxe dinners. Couples also exchange Valentine cards.

In Japan, women give men chocolate.

Chocolate given to a male sweetheart is known as “honmei” (true love) chocolate. That given to a business colleague — an act of courtesy — is known as “giri” (duty) chocolate.

Unique to Japan and South Korea is White Day, celebrated on March 14 when men who received chocolates on Valentine’s Day are encouraged to return gifts in kind to women, particularly candies.

According to a candy industry group, Japanese confectioners started targeting young men around the mid-1970s with “return gifts” such as candies, marshmallows and cookies. This is now an established custom.

Besides White Day, South Korea also recognizes Black Day on April 14, when males and females who didn’t have partners in February and March console each other by wearing black clothes and eating noodles in black sauce.

When did the practice of women giving chocolate to men start in Japan?

It is widely believed the custom started with confectioners’ sales campaigns that aimed to make chocolate among those special gifts women would give men.

The first chocolate gift advertisement for Valentine’s Day dates to 1936, when Kobe-based confectioner Morozoff Ltd. posted an ad for Valentine’s Day chocolate in The Japan Advertiser, which was later absorbed by The Japan Times.

The Morozoff ad, however, did not clearly target women.

Mary Chocolate Co. claims to be the first confectioner to launch a sales campaign urging women to send men chocolate on Valentine’s Day. This was in 1958. At the time, women were rather conservative and it was uncommon for them to openly demonstrate affection, according to company spokeswoman Ritsuko Kawana.

The company used the catchphrase: “This is a once-in-a-year day when women can confess their love” to men.

The campaign succeeded in persuading women to more actively express their feelings to men.

Other manufacturers got on the bandwagon, and by around 1960 many confectioners were running ads for heart-shaped chocolates. The sweet had become a firmly established Valentine’s Day tradition in Japan.

How much do women splurge on chocolate gifts?

The once-in-a-century economic crisis is not discouraging women from buying Valentine’s chocolates, at least in Tokyo.

According to a survey of 292 women conducted by the Printemps department store in the Ginza district, this year’s outlays for honmei, giri and “jibun” (personal) chocolate all rose from last year.

Giri chocolate purchases actually marked a historic high — an average of ¥1,172 — since the store started surveying buyers in 2002.

That is even though Valentine’s Day falls on Saturday, when many people are not at work and hence there is little need to offer giri chocolates to colleagues.

Respondents said they purchased 7.7 giri chocolate packages on average.

Outlays for honmei chocolates averaged ¥3,325, up ¥275 from last year, and jibun chocolate spending came to ¥3,167, up ¥469.

“We had expected the budget for Valentine’s chocolates to fall amid the severe economic situation,” Printemps said in a press release.

“Even amid the bad economy, people might be thinking that because Valentine’s Day is a dreamy event, they can spend on chocolate, a reasonably priced luxury.”

What percentage of chocolatiers’ sales stem from Valentine’s Day?

According to the Chocolate & Cocoa Association of Japan and major sweets manufacturer Lotte Co., sales between late January and mid-February in 2005 amounted to ¥53 billion, or 12 percent of annual chocolate consumption.

Lotte suggested the number comes to about 20 percent, noting Feb. 14 is when Japanese eat the most chocolate.

“(Valentine’s Day chocolate) has extremely big importance,” Lotte spokesman Eiji Otani said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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