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Valentine's Day in Japan is All About The Chocolate - 2004-02-13

The people of Japan celebrate Valentine's Day in their own unique fashion. The Japanese - who have a complex set of gift giving traditions, observe the day to celebrate love with a mix of romance, friendship and obligation.

A love song sung by the Japanese pop musical group SMAP, is topping the charts from Tokyo to Osaka in the run-up to Valentine's Day. It is about a young man expressing his love for the one special lady in his life.

But in Japan, Valentine's Day is anything but a time for exclusive romance. In this nation, the wealthiest in Asia, it's all about chocolate -and lots of it. Japanese women are expected to buy pricey boxes of chocolate and distribute them to dozens of different men on February 14.

"I will give chocolate to my boyfriend but I will also hand out 20 boxes of chocolate to male colleagues and bosses," says Mieko Kumagai, an office worker in her early 30s. "I do this every year, though the amount of money I spend fluctuates."

Miss Kumagai, like tens of millions Japanese women, will spend $50 or more every year to buy chocolates for Valentine's Day.

The Japanese, with their gift-giving culture, call it "giri choko" or obligation chocolate. Of course, many ladies also give what is known as "honmei choko" or true love chocolate, to their boyfriend or husband.

Noriko Fujiwara is a research director at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a market research agency.

"As marketers of chocolate wanted to sell more, they also encouraged that it does not have to be your serious boyfriend," he said. "It could be colleagues in your office or someone that you casually know to whom that you want to express your feelings. So they encouraged women to simply express good and favorable feelings toward men through chocolate."

The trend began in 1958 as the brainchild of Kunio Hara, a junior worker at a Tokyo confectioner called Marry Chocolate. The sweet stuff was not too popular in Japan back in those days, so he launched a new marketing campaign based on the idea that women should send men chocolate.

That year, during the first Valentine's Day sales campaign, he is said to have sold just three chocolate bars. But over the next several decades, the trend of buying and giving multiple boxes of chocolate exploded, putting a unique Japanese twist on a Western custom and catapulting Mr. Hara to the presidency of his company, where he remains to this day.

His company, along with dozens of others chocolate makers, has a dominating presence among all kinds of Japanese retailers in the month before Valentine's Day. In department stores, supermarkets and convenience shops, displays of chocolates line the most prominent areas, with table after table of the dark, sweet candy.

The variety is staggering - boxes of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, truffles, caramels and pralines. Stores even sell make-your-own chocolates kits for those on a limited budget. Refrigerated cases brought in for the occasion are stocked with the fanciest imported brands as well as chocolate cakes and ice cream.

The chocolate fest accounts for more than a third of the $4 billion Japan spends on chocolate every year.

Many Japanese men enjoy the tradition, which fits right in with Japan's ability to tailor foreign concepts to suit its culture.

Takato Toguchi is a 33-year-old business owner who receives chocolate from his female employees.

"Receiving chocolates is a test of a man's popularity," he says.

While men get to savor their sugary gifts on February 14, one month later, the tables are turned and Japanese women are on the receiving end.

In Japan, March 14 is known as White Day - when men are expected to reciprocate with chocolate and other gifts.

Ms. Fujiwara, the marketing expert, says many men spend even more money than women do on Valentine's Day.

"It was also again a marketing scheme invented by marketers who wanted to promote sales of gifts and they thought that the very good context in which they can invent another occasion to send gifts regularly is to return the gifts that you received on Valentine's Day," she says. "So White Day is the day that males who have received chocolates from their female colleagues or friends or even their girlfriends to give them a return gift."

But some women refuse to wait a whole month for their chocolate. Department store marketing surveys show that a growing number of women are buying themselves chocolate on Valentine's Day. This year more than 80 percent of women said they will buy chocolate candy for their own consumption and they will spend even more on themselves than they do on the guys.

Marketers are going with the trend, and have coined the term "myself valentine" for the finest chocolates that they hope ladies will purchase for themselves.