In Japan, Passion Cools for ‘Obligation’ Chocolate

Times Staff Writer

Nozomi Hashimoto, a 26-year-old insurance worker, used to buy dozens of boxes of giri choco, or obligation chocolates, on Valentine’s Day that she’d distribute to the men in her office. The tradition would set her back $150 or so, but it was all but obligatory in Japan’s gift-giving culture.

Nowadays, she and a few colleagues chip in and buy a single box of chocolates for the office at a fraction of the cost. “There’s a lot less obligation generally in Japan these days,” Hashimoto said. “Besides, there’s nothing very romantic about work.”

As money coursed through the economy during the speculative bubble years of the late 1980s, a feeding frenzy in giri choco ensued as boxes were handed out to teachers, mentors, bosses and friends. Department stores fondly recall the days when young women would depart with as many as 100 boxes each.


But along with tougher economic times has come a more sober outlook. Corporate restructuring has left more people without jobs and undermined office camaraderie.

Growing social stress and changing values also have weakened Japan’s intricate system of gift giving and obligation known as giri, hurting sales of giri chocolate.

“Everyone’s busier with the downturn, which takes the fun out of it,” said Yukie Hamada, 45, an employee at a public corporation.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of imports and higher-end domestic candy, the downturn hasn’t cut deeply into the country’s $3.76 billion in annual chocolate sales, which have slipped only 3.5% from a decade ago.

Japan is famous for shaping foreign concepts to fit its culture. In the case of Valentine’s Day -- or St. Valentine’s Day, as it’s called here -- Japan broke the idea into two parts. Women do the giving on Valentine’s Day, leaving men to reciprocate a month later on a holiday called White Day.

Valentine’s Day took off in Japan during the mid-1950s after Tokyo-based Merry Chocolate Co. created a “Women Send Men Chocolate” campaign to help sell its heart-shaped chocolate. By the 1970s, the holiday was entrenched.

About 1980, Osaka candy makers decided to push their luck with a second holiday in which men would reciprocate. March 14 was proposed, supposedly the time of year Japan’s first candy was created. Various names were floated, including Poppy, Flower and Cookie Day, before promoters settled on White Day in hopes of evoking chaste young love.

Nobuo Nakanishi, an official with the Japan Candy Industry Cooperative Assn., was instrumental in creating White Day. It was slow going at first, he admits. But it caught on after about five years, at which point he started pushing the idea that a man’s return gift should be worth three or four times what a woman gave him on Valentine’s Day.

“Now I’m the enemy of Japanese men,” he said. “Still, it’s been fun to create some sparks between the sexes.”

A subsequent industry attempt to get Halloween going in Japan fell flat, officials said.

Naomi Sato, a 31-year-old office worker, used the excuse of Valentine’s Day to buy a nice box of chocolate for herself this year. “I also gave one to my boyfriend,” she said. “Actually, he’s not my boyfriend yet. Nor is he the most sensitive guy in the world, so I hope the chocolate helps him figure out how I feel about him.”

Hisako Ueno in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.