Tokyo — Standing behind ropes adorned with giant melting chocolate bars, long lines of shoppers — the vast majority of them female — waited patiently at Tokyo’s Isetan Department Store. Valentine’s Day accounts for 20% of Japan’s annual chocolate consumption, and the competition to capture hearts and sweet tooths is intense.
The gaudy bonbons on offer at one counter, in flavors like passion fruit, citron and Earl Grey, could have been mistaken for an assortment of vibrant nail polish. Another displayed paper-thin sheets of chocolate, realistically printed to resemble traditional Japanese fabrics.
Elsewhere, there were little kitchen-mitt-shaped chocolate cookie-and-raspberry-jam-and-butter cream sandwiches, shimmering, heart-shaped, rose-scented gateau cakes, mini-medallion confections embedded with edible “jewels” and artisan-crafted chocolates infused with yuzu citrus, wasabi and shochu liquor.
Outside Japan, Valentine’s Day may be known for romance, but in Japan, it’s rapidly evolving into a chocolate extravaganza intended not for couples in love, but primarily for the enjoyment of women.
Japan’s idiosyncratic approach to Valentine’s Day has come a long way since the 1950s, when local merchants promoted gift-giving of cosmetics and apparel. By the following decade, Japanese chocolate companies had realized the enormous sales potential of Febrary14th, but they reimagined it as a date on which women and girls were expected to buy chocolates for men. A separate, less popular “White Day,” on March 14, was created for men to return the favor.
The 1980s brought another twist. It became expected that women would buy and hand out chocolates not just to friends or loved ones, but to male co-workers and bosses. The practice came to be known as “obligation chocolates.”
In recent years, however, obligation chocolates have largely gone the way of cigarette smoke-filled offices in Japan. A survey last month by Japanese department store JR Nagoya Takashimaya found a mere 3% of respondents planning to buy obligation chocolates, and only 8% looking to gift candy to a partner.
Shoppers looking to treat family, friends and “people who have helped me” accounted for just over half of the responses.
So, what was the top reason respondents planned to buy Valentine’s Day chocolate? It was to treat themselves.
An article this month in Forbes Japan on the demise of obligation chocolates drew a slew of good riddances.
“I’m glad it’s over,” one commentor wrote. “A pain both for giver and receiver.”
The custom, another person noted, was “tantamount to requiring women to serve tea.”
“Luxury chocolate should be for personal use, and I enjoy buying unusual, imported chocolate,” a third wrote. “Giving it away to someone else would be a waste.”