Business

Not so much obliged: More Japanese women buying Valentine's chocolates for themselves, not colleagues

by Ryotaro Nakamaru

Kyodo

More and more women in Japan are abandoning the tradition of giving obligatory chocolates to male coworkers on Valentine’s Day, instead using the occasion to treat themselves.

The trend reflects shifting societal norms and consumer attitudes in the country, creating new opportunities and challenges for the chocolate industry.

A week before Feb. 14, the seventh floor of Tokyo’s Ginza Mitsukoshi department store was packed with women peering into displays showcasing the exotic chocolates on offer.

Hitomi Nakada, a shopper in her 40s who was visiting with a friend, says she buys herself something every Valentine’s Day. “It’s a must! I love chocolate, and some of these brands are only available this time of the year.”

Valentine’s Day is big business in the country, where women have traditionally given the men in their lives — husbands and boyfriends, fathers, friends, coworkers — a box of chocolates. According to the Japan Anniversary Association, the domestic market for the occasion is estimated to be worth ¥126 billion ($1.1 billion) this year.

While that still narrowly edges out Halloween, it’s a 3 percent drop from last year. The association partly attributes the decline to the growing perception that for bosses to expect a gift from their workers is an abuse of power.

Last year, confectioner Godiva Japan Inc. drew attention on social media for putting out a full-page newspaper advertisement signed by President Jerome Chouchan calling for an end to obligatory chocolate-giving, or giri choko.

Looking back, Chouchan says he put out the ad to make sure the giving was done in the right spirit.

“Our question is whether the occasion is a happy moment for the givers. That is very important for us. So, if you really enjoy giri choko … we would like you to continue.”

“However, if you feel bad in giving chocolate by obligation, we do not suggest you to continue. That’s the purpose of this ad: always be happy in selecting and giving chocolate.”

Doing away with obligatory chocolate-giving, which Japanese men are expected to reciprocate a month later on White Day, has freed up women to spend a little more on themselves, and on their friends.

Valentine’s Day has moved far past its romantic connotations and “we’re seeing more and more instances of women looking for an opportunity to get together with their girlfriends,” says Natsumi Akai, an assistant buyer at Ginza Mitsukoshi.

Large, expensive chocolate boxes, some costing more than ¥10,000, are becoming more popular, she says, because they can be shared among women who throw small house parties. Fancy chocolates in photogenic packaging are also prime material to post on social media platforms such as Instagram.

The chocolate industry hopes such demand can help cover for the drop in giri choko sales. Chouchan is optimistic, noting that Japanese only eat a fraction of the chocolate that Europeans consume, meaning “there will be more potential to grow.”

Nakada, the shopper, says she still plans to hand out giri choko to friends and people to whom she wants to show gratitude. But while they weren’t cheap — around ¥2,000 each — she admits to spending three times that amount on herself.

“I just want to reward myself sometimes, you know?”