Valentine: ancient tradition force Japanese women to buy gifts for lovers

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TOKYO (AFP) – Japanese women flocked to department stores Thursday to buy Valentine’s Day chocolates for all the men in their lives, but more of them this year are dispensing with tradition and treating themselves or their friends.

In much of the West, February 14 is a day when men can sink or swim on their ability to make impressive dinner plans or buy a suitable bunch of flowers.

But in Japan it is the women who make the running, buying “honmei” (true love) chocolates for the husband or lover, and “giri” (obligation) treats for colleagues and bosses.

The custom stretches back to the late 1950s when a firm called Mary Chocolate began advertising Valentine’s Day as “the only day of the year a woman professes her love through presenting chocolate”.

Sayaka Aizawa, a 29-year-old housewife shopping for sweets at the Matsuzakaya department store in Tokyo, was unaware other countries celebrated the day differently.

“I have never thought of it. I thought women were supposed to give chocolate. I wish I were receiving them, but it’s not happening in Japan,” she said.

While chocolate-buying boyfriends and husbands remained few and far between on Thursday, not all the confectionary was intended for men.

“There are many women customers buying chocolate for themselves or for their female friends this year,” said store employee Chiyuki Daido, adding purchases were ranging from 3,000 yen to 15,000 yen ($30-$150).

These increasingly popular “tomo” (friend) chocolates are the industry’s attempt to squeeze more cash out of a shrinking population.

And while there is no campaign advocating splashing out on a box for personal consumption, some women said they would be giving into temptation.

“I want to buy one for myself if I can find a good one,” said Emi Kosaka, a 37-year-old corporate executive. “There are quite a lot of varieties around.”

An assortment of chocolates — milk, dark, white and even green tea variety — lined the impressive glass displays.

Belgian chocolatier Wittamer was proudly showing off a life-size chocolate squirrel eating a nut in its window, with a price tag of 10,500 yen ($102).

Elsewhere chocolates in the shape of miniature teddy bears, cakes and butterflies were being delicately gift-wrapped by shopkeepers.

Japan’s $4 billion-a-year chocolate business is driven by special days like Valentine’s, which set the cash tills ringing.

The country is Asia’s largest market for chocolate and accounts for a hefty slice of the world’s pie, which consultancy KPMG says was worth about $100 billion in 2012.

But lest any male think he’s got away with it too easily, Friday marks the beginning of the countdown to White Day — March 14th — when men have to buy gifts for all the women in their lives.

“I know this is unique to Japan,” said corporate executive Kosaka. “But it’s okay with me. This is a chance to buy a lot of chocolate.”

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