Valentine’s Day is a day of anticipation for many, both in Japan and the West. In the west, men and women wait in anticipation to receive gifts from and go on dates with their love interests or significant other. In Japan, women nervously prepare chocolates for the men in their lives, while the men eagerly wait to return those feelings on White Day.
But it's not just romance and excitement for most women in Japan. For many, it’s a major source of stress and chaos.
In Japan, unlike the West where gift-giving tends to be mutual, expectations are primarily placed on the women. It's not just their romantic interests they have to prepare chocolate gifts for, but practically every other non-romantically involved male as well. As a result, women flock not just to stores and chocolate shops, but to recipe sites like Japan's Cookpad, which experiences its largest traffic spikes in the run-up to V-Day.
Not only can it be extremely stressful to know what to get for whom, but it can also become incredibly expensive if you know and work with many people. That's led an increasing number of women - and even some chocolate companies - to call hooey on the whole idea altogether.
Introduction of the Valentine's Day Marketing Ploy
If you do a little research, you can easily find information about the general history of the traditional holiday of Valentine’s Day. But how and why did such a celebration enter Japan in the first place?
Valentine’s Day was likely introduced to Japan by Kunio Hara, the second-generation president of Mary Chocolate Company. After hearing about Valentine’s Day as a student, he suggested to his father to run a Valentine’s Day promotion. After a couple of flops, Hara found success in a special promotion selling chocolates in heart-shaped boxes with “to-and-from” tags, with the slogan "Once a year, give a confession of love from a woman to a man!”
Women in Japan, which was still a primarily male dominated society at the time, embraced this campaign as a way to take more initiative in their romantic lives, and hence started the Japanese tradition of women giving chocolates to men on Valentines Day.
(JP) Link: When Did Valentine's Day Begin in Japan?
バレンタインデーっていつから始まったの？ – Frantz Voice
Types of Chocolate Giving Styles
As Japanese society has developed, the traditions have changed along with it. However, one thing hasn’t changed: the responsibility of handing out chocolates on Valentine’s Day falls to women. Not only are they responsible for handing chocolates to their partner or romantic interests, they now are expected to give chocolates to just about every other man in their life as well.
Chocolate giving on Valentine's Day breaks down into these major categories:
Honmei choco (本命チョコ), or "love chocolate" (literally "hear's desire chocolate"), is chocolate a woman gives to her partner, romantic interest, or crush. Often, these are homemade, but can also be bought, in which case it would be from a more expensive, popular brand.
Tomo choco (友チョコ), or "friend chocolate", is given by women to their female friends as a sign of friendship, and is usually cheaper than honmei choco.
Giri choco (義理チョコ), and the central issue of this article, translates to "duty chocolate" and is given to male employers and coworkers. Less of a romantic gesture, these are thought of more as an act of gratitude for their support and cooperation in the workplace. While romantic chocolates are generally given out to only one person (your romantic interest), duty chocolates are expected to be handed out to everyone else, and therefore must be purchased in volume.
Valentine's Day and Gender Inequality
A common criticism of Japan's version of Valentine's Day is that it is reeks of gender inequality, as a holiday which seems to exist solely for the benefit of men at the expense of the women who attempt to appease them with chocolate.
One may argue against that stance by citing White Day, the day that men return the favor by buying chocolate or small gifts for the women they received chocolate from on Valentine's Day, as a day that puts men and women back on the same equal footing. But while men are encouraged to return the favor on White Day, especially those who received love chocolate, it's not obligatory, and not all men who receive duty chocolates do. For women, the giving of chocolate is still expected, despite having to wait an entire month for reciprocity - and not even knowing whether or not their gesture will be returned at all.
This also does nothing for the outdated view of women that society has been trying to overcome: that women exist for the benefit and pleasure of men. This was recently seen in a controversial ad by Loft, a Japanese department store, which depicted a bunch of identical women casually chatting about romance and Valentine's Day. At first glance, they are shown as friends just having typical girl talk. Later, they're revealed to be harboring resentment, showing the girls attempting to hurt one another behind their backs.
(JP) Link: Controversial Loft Valentine's Ad Withdrawn: "Women Depicted as Malicious," "What Does It Mean?"
Loft later pulled the ad and posted an apology to Twitter:
弊社バレンタインプロモーションのビジュアルについて、ご不快な思いをされた方々がいらっしゃったこと、深くお詫び申し上げます。配慮を欠いた事を反省し、当該ビジュアルの掲出を停止致します。お客様並びに関係した多くの皆様にご迷惑をおかけしたことを謹んでお詫び申し上げます。— ロフト公式 (@LOFT_Official) 2019年2月4日
We deeply apologize for any inconvenience caused by our Valentine promotion ads. Reflecting on our lack of consideration, we have decided to pull these visuals. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused to anyone affected. Loft Co., Ltd.
Duty Chocolate: Appreciation or Harassment?
It’s understandable why something as unromantic-sounding as "duty chocolate" would gain so much momentum in a country like Japan, where work ethic and social relations are of utmost importance. Indeed, living duty chocolate on Valentine’s Day has become a workplace expectation.
But with Japan's growing awareness of gender equality issues, the practice is now seen by some as just another form of imbalance in the workplace. More and more women have been waking up to just how stressful and expensive it can be, and are deeming it to be, quite frankly, unnecessary. Moreover, some are taking it even further and criticizing the tradition as not just unfair for women, but as outright harassment.
In the workplace, it is important not to stand out, but to conform as much as possible in order to be a “good” worker. And sadly, a lot of that also involves sucking up, and keeping your mouth shut, even when you sense something awry, just for the sake of convenience and saving face. Giving chocolates to your bosses and coworkers is not just appreciated, it’s expected. And while there are people who do enjoy the tradition and do so happily, it puts a lot of pressure on those who don’t necessarily want to (or can’t, for financial reasons). Many are beginning to see this tradition of "forced giving" as an abuse of power.
A recent poll asked 450 Japanese women about their thoughts and plans for duty chocolate plans. About 39.8% responded that yes, they were planning to hand out duty chocolate this year. When asked why, 59.2% responded that they felt it showed gratitude to the support these coworkers give them throughout the year. 44.7% felt the tradition promotes a happy work environment through communication, and 18.4% said they simply wanted to make their coworkers happy. However 7.8% said they would only do it because their female coworkers were and they didn’t want to look bad.
(JP) Link: Do You Give Chocolates to Coworkers? 40% of Women Say They Do So for Better Communication
While many women do still participate and support the tradition as a way to show appreciation and keep the workplace running smoothly, a separate survey revealed that 35.6% of both men and women thought of duty chocolate as an abuse of power. In the following news clip, several office workers were asked for their take on the tradition. With many companies recently trending towards paying more attention to and taking more action against issues like power harassment, more and more are expressing support for the ban.
(JP) Link: Is Duty Chocolate Power Harassment? Something Strange in the Valentine's Day Shopping Wars (19/01/30)
Godiva's Anti-"Duty Chocolate" Campaign
And it’s not just companies that are changing their stance: even chocolate makers have spoken up.
On February 1st 2018, the popular Belgian chocolate brand Godiva ran a full-page newspaper ad that bluntly read: “Japan, let’s stop the duty chocolate practice.” Their message was one of support for working women, and spoke against the stress many face when shopping for chocolate, not out of a true desire to give them to someone they cared about, but out of pressure. They even addressed male readers, suggesting that company workers, especially the higher-ups, tell their female employees and coworkers not to “force yourself to give anyone duty chocolate.”
Godiva's ad also declared what perhaps many have thought but didn't dare say: that people should “experience the joy of telling people their feelings,” and should be encouraged to offer their heartfelt expressions of “I love you” and “Thank you”, not out of obligation or to be polite, but out of true, authentic sentiment. Goodbye, duty chocolate - hello, love chocolate.
At first, it might seem like a shock that a famous chocolate company might jeopardize their sales for the sake of making a statement. But most people opt for cheaper brands for duty chocolate, saving classier brands like Godiva for lovers, really close friends, or even themselves. Godiva wouldn't face much risk even if the practice were completely stopped. If anything, they might even improve in sales because women would now have more money to spend on fancy chocolate for their lovers and close friends.
(JP) Link: "Japan Should Stop Duty Chocolate." Godiva's Bold Newspaper Ad Empathizes with Women
Chocolate Wars: The Duty Chocolate King’s Backlash
Of course, not everyone was pleased by the chocolate giant’s bold actions. Black Thunder, a bargain chocolate brand, is one of the biggest and most popular brands used for duty chocolate. After Godiva ran that ad, Black Thunder took to social media with their response:
There seems to be much talk about a certain advertisement (‘-‘) Well, you do you, and we’ll do us. Everyone is different, and Yuraku Confectionary will continue to be a "chance to convey your daily gratitude." We will support duty chocolate ('-' )
The company defended buying cheap chocolates as a simple way of saying “Thank you” to people who deserve it, and denied that the practice had to be expensive or troublesome. They tweeted the statement with an image of a Black Thunder display, grabbing the opportunity to promote their less-than-a-dollar chocolates.
(JP) Link: Black Thunder Objects to Godiva's 'End Duty Chocolate' Ad! "We Support the Culture of Duty Chocolate"
The rivalry continued into this year, when Godiva called out Black Thunder personally in a tweet on January 28, 2019:
「義理チョコといえばブラックサンダー（ @Black_Thunder_ ）さん！ でも、有楽製菓の皆様の中にも本命チョコも贈りたいという方がいると思います。お届けします “Thanks GODIVA” を試食して、本命の方へはGODIVAを選んで頂けますと、嬉しい限りです」
When people think of duty chocolate, they think of Black Thunder! However even the people at Yuraku Confectionery surely have someone they want to give love chocolate to. Try some of our "Thanks Godiva" chocolates we’re sending you. We would be thrilled if you choose Godiva for your love chocolate.
The official Black Thunder account responded soon after not with words, but a simple kaomoji (the Japanese version of emoji) expressing what looks like shock or confusion:
A short while later, the official account was found to have changed its name to “Black Thunder [officially recognized by Godiva as obligation chocolate]” (ブラックサンダーさん【ゴディバ公認義理チョコ】).
(JP) Link: Godiva, Representative of Love Chocolate, Calls Out Duty Chocolate King 'Black Thunder,' Causing Confusion
Make Chocolate, Not War
Despite all this drama between both companies in recent years, and the continuation of the duty chocolate controversy, Black Thunder afterwards released a rather shocking announcement to chocolate lovers in Japan via leaflet, with a headline reading: “Black Thunder suspends duty chocolate?!”
And sure enough, in alignment with their most recent ad, when checking out their line-up of chocolates at their popular, normally duty chocolate stocked pop-up store in Tokyo Station, not a single duty chocolate was to be found. Instead, they were replaced with souvenir chocolates, and a message encouraging customers to “buy souvenirs instead.” Their explanation?
We think that giving duty chocolate is a wonderful custom that expresses gratitude and brings happiness to both the buyer and receiver. Until now, we have always supported the tradition of duty chocolate as a chance to convey our daily feelings of thanks. However, after hearing other opinions such as 'I thought she liked me, but it was duty chocolate' and 'I thought I had a chance, but I didn’t,' now we aren’t sure if duty chocolates are a good or bad thing....So we are considering stopping duty chocolates.
(JP) Link: End of Valentine's Day Announcement: Black Thunder Stops Duty Chocolates?! Shocking Leaflets Distributed Around City
It seems the duty chocolate revolt is spreading. And it is spreading in more ways than one.
Other Sweet Options
After so many years of Japan celebrating Valentine’s Day in their own way, it is obvious to say that with the changing of times comes the changing of people’s minds as well. It seems that aside from the issue of whether to give duty chocolate or not is only one of the topics being raised recently in opposition to the Japanese way of celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Though Japan is unique in that it basically has a second Valentine’s Day, or White Day, only a month later in which the men return the favor by giving women chocolate, it seems many still feel left out and tired of doing all the Valentine’s Day giving.
A recent survey from Japanese confectioner Lotte revealed yet another type of chocolate woman were hoping could become more popular, namely, “gyaku-choko (逆チョコ),” which translates to “reverse chocolate.” In other words, switching the roles and letting the ladies receive the chocolates for a change! The survey sampled about 2,400 men and women between the ages of 10 and 69, asking how women who received reverse chocolate felt about it, and a whopping 96% were thrilled about it.
However, this doesn’t explain whether or not White Day traditions would be affected, nor what the “rules” and etiquette would be for giving these chocolates, something that is very important to Japanese society as a whole.
(JP) Link: Attention All Males! Have You Heard of "Reverse Chocolate," the Chocolate Women Want to Receive from You?
Finally, let’s not forget that not everyone necessarily has the desire to buy chocolates for anyone at all. For example, what if you are single, not dating anyone, and are also against the idea of duty chocolate? Well it seems that there is also a percentage of women in Japan growing who plain and simple, just want to buy chocolate for themselves!
With reasons such as those mentioned above, the fact that it saves money, and even deeper reasons such as “Chocolates are gifts for those you love, and I love myself the most,” more and more women are looking to using the holiday as a reason to practice a little self-love and splurge on chocolate for themselves, called jibun-you-choko (自分用チョコ), or "personal chocolates."
A survey by Matsuya, a department store in Japan, revealed that about 70% of people, most in their 20s to 40s, buy chocolates for themselves on Valentine’s Day. However, it also revealed that when it came to buying personal chocolates, on average, the amount spent was even higher than love chocolate given to partners and lovers.
(JP) Link: The Budget for Personal Chocolate Higher than Love Chocolate, Reveals Matsuya Survey
The following blog post reveals a Japanese woman’s personal thoughts on the idea, encouraging women to treat themselves on that day by thinking of it as a reward for themselves for all their hard work. However, she also cautions that regardless of whether you plan to purchase chocolates for others or not, the safest bet is to always budget and plan ahead, as indulgence and over-indulgence can be quite different things. She also offers her own personal suggestions and favorite brands.
(JP) Link: ''Valentine's Day Budget, Brands, and Recommendations, All for Yourself!
Though it is expected that every country with its own unique culture and traditions will almost always have their own ways of doing and celebrating certain things, it is important to keep in mind what the real meaning of any holiday or event is. As much as we all love chocolate, in the end, Valentine’s Day is first and foremost about love and appreciation, not just for others, but also for yourself! And that love should be share equally amongst all people, regardless of status, gender, or anything else.
Now go treat yourself to some chocolate!
Majority of women to buy Valentine's chocolates for themselves, averaging ¥4,200, Japan survey shows. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/02/08/national/women-buy-valentines-chocs-others-japanese-survey-shows/#.XGAzWS2ZPv1
Loft under fire for its outdated portrayal of women in advertising campaign. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/02/09/national/media-national/loft-fire-outdated-portrayal-women-advertising-campaign/#.XGA0oS2ZPv0
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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