Japan, as a non-Christian nation (meaning not founded on or around Christian beliefs), was initially slow to adopt this most Western of traditions, however from the mid-20th century onwards the spread of Western mass culture to Japan brought about a shift in mindset and the adoption of Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate personal relationships. However unlike in the West, the expectations surrounding Valentine’s Day were focused on female relations with men, for under Japan’s traditions women did not play as prominent a role in public matters and so were expected to defer their own ambitions to their male counterparts. Hence rather than give chocolate as a sign of genuine affection for someone, women employed in the corporate world of Japan were expected to provide chocolate to their male colleagues out of a sense of obligation. Since it was the male employees of a company that dictated how the company was run and whether it would succeed or fail, any encouragement to the male workers of the company was deemed beneficial (particularly to the continued employment of women in the company), and so rose the concept of “義理チョコ, or obligation chocolate”.
However department stores in Japan, aware that a one-off hit of chocolate sales were good but two were better, came up with the idea of “White Day” in the 1960s, whereby male staff would repay their female colleagues for their kindness by providing chocolate in return. Hence the concept of “obligation chocolate” runs both ways, although in terms of marketing and overall corporate interest Valentine’s Day is by far a much bigger deal than “White Day”. While it is often considered better “form” to make one’s own chocolate and then distribute this in the form of a gift, the pace of modern life in Japan means that most people purchase chocolate from department stores and give these to their colleagues.
Yet one chocolate maker has gone out on a limb to try and overturn the concept of “obligation chocolate” and return Valentine’s Day to its more traditional image as a genuine expression of affection. Or at least that seems to the reason why, earlier this month, Godiva Chocolates Japan took out a full-page ad in the Nikkei Shimbun calling on Japan to “end the practice of obligation chocolate”. According to the text in the ad, CEO Jerome Chouchan declares that Valentine’s Day should go back to its origins and not be used as something to just “improve relations around the office”. However as this article by Jake Adelstein notes, the reaction to the ad has been mixed. While some agree with its sentiment, others have interpreted it as a cynical marketing ploy, given that Godiva chocolates are not usually given as gifts on Valentine’s Day and thus halting the practice of “obligation chocolate” would benefit Godiva’s sales.
Yet the fact that most reactions to the ad have been positive shows that the issue of “obligation chocolate” is one that people have been mulling over for some time. It seems that giving chocolate as an obligation is regarded as more of a nuisance than anything else, and one office practice that is unlikely to survive much longer as workplace diversity and a falling workforce participation rate forces changes on corporate Japan that are ultimately replicated across society as a whole.