“Obligation Chocolate”: Japan’s Problematic Valentine’s Tradition

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, many are stressing over what gift to get their significant other to suitably show their love and affection. Those stress levels are going to be a lot higher, however, for the women of Japan. On Valentine’s Day, along with giving honmei choco (true love chocolate), Japanese women are also expected to give giri choco (obligation chocolate) to many of their male colleagues as a sign of gratitude. This obligation chocolate is separately marketed as a cheaper, simpler type of chocolate, encouraging women to buy a large quantity for their male co-workers. While their generosity is usually returned a month later on White Day, March 14th, when it is the men’s turn to give women gifts, the social expectations that come with giri choco cause many women unnecessary stress.

On White Day, men are simply expected to return the favour to anyone who gave them a Valentine’s gift. By going first, Japanese women are faced with the decision of who they are expected to get chocolate for and how much they are expected to spend. A poll by corporation 3M exploring the reasons behind giri choco giving found that 44.7% did so to help ‘promote smoother workplace communication’. With the risk of an uncomfortable workplace experience, should the wrong colleagues miss out on chocolate, the pressure put on women every Valentine’s Day makes the annual event a source of stress for many.

In recent years many companies in Japan have banned the practice of giri choco and some confectionery companies have stepped up to discourage the practice. Notably, last year chocolate company Godiva released a newspaper ad stating that Valentine’s day should not be ‘a day on which you’re supposed to do something extra for the sake of smooth relations at work. So men […] tell the women in your office “Don’t force yourself to give anyone giri choco”’. Similarly, in a surprising move, the popular Japanese chocolate brand Black Thunder – who had previously promoted themselves as a leading giri choco provider since the mid-90s – announced that they will not be selling such chocolate anymore.

The comments from both companies have been criticised as more marketing ploy than social movement, since Godiva’s more expensive chocolate is unlikely to be bought for giri choco anyway and so they are mostly undermining their cheaper competitors. Likewise, Black Thunder has swapped its giri choco products for a more expensive souvenir range, instead taking advantage of the prevalent Japanese culture of souvenir-giving. Despite the company’s intentions, such large and influential confectionery companies voicing these opinions may be what is needed to change a cultural expectation that has been ongoing since the 1950s. A recent poll by a Tokyo department store has found that only 35% of women plan on giving giri choco this year, revealing that more and more women are falling out of love with this difficult Valentine’s tradition.

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