Shifting gender politics and the coronavirus have combined to spell the possible end of the Japanese Valentine’s Day custom of women giving chocolates to male colleagues.
Traditionally, women are expected to buy gift-wrapped chocolates for the men in their working lives – usually senior colleagues and others who have helped them during the course of the year – as part of a tradition called giri choco, literally obligation chocolates.
The custom is not a one-way street, however: men are supposed to reciprocate a month later on White Day – a marketing ploy dreamed up by chocolate makers in the early 80s to boost sales.
Growing resistance to the practice – which can involve anything from expensive treats from a chocolatier to budget selections sold in convenience stores and supermarkets – has led to a decline in sales in recent years, as more women object to “forced giving”.
This year, they have an unlikely ally in Covid-19, which has caused record numbers of Japanese to work from home and forced firms to restrict socialising and sharing food in the office, giving reluctant women the perfect excuse to skip the custom and perhaps treat themselves instead.
Only 9.9% of women plan to observe the giri choco custom this year, according to Intage, a market research firm – in keeping with recent trends – although a bigger proportion, 24%, said they would do so if the gifts came from a group of female colleagues.
“Women’s mindsets toward giri-choco may be changing as they have fewer opportunities to meet their co-workers in person,” an Intage representative told the Asahi Shimbun.
The practice of giving honmei-choco – or “favourite” chocolates – to romantic partners has fared even worse, with just 7.7% , almost half last year’s total, of the women surveyed saying they planned to make the gesture.
Stores say they are expecting a steep fall in sales, due to coronavirus prevention measures such as limiting customer numbers and reducing the number of stalls selling chocolates. Their commercial prospects have also been dented by the calendar, with Valentine’s Day falling on a Sunday this year.
“We are bracing ourselves for a fall in sales by at least 20% compared to last year,” a representative of a department store in Fukuoka, south-west Japan, told the Mainichi Shimbun. “The market for giri choco is particularly bad.”
Giving chocolate as Valentine’s Day gifts took off commercially in Japan in the mid-1950s, growing into a multimillion-dollar market.
But some companies have banned the practice – which some see as a form of power harassment – and more women are buying chocolates for themselves or friends.
According to MyVoice Communications, an internet research firm in Tokyo, 56.8% of men and women polled in 2010 said they had given or received Valentine’s gifts, but by last year that had fallen to 44.6%
Despite efforts by manufacturers to come up with imaginative new lines and push online purchases, the Japan Anniversary Association, a group that promotes awareness of the country’s culture and customs, has gone as far as to warn that giri choco were “on the brink of extinction”.
One woman told the Mainichi that she usually gives chocolates to business partners and senior colleagues, “but I won’t do it this year”.
In some cases it is not the traditional nature of the relationship between giver and recipient that is melting the giri choco tradition. One woman said she and her female colleagues had started exchanging chocolates among themselves, but added: “It was actually quite bothersome. I’m glad I don’t have to do it this year.”