Many complain that Valentine’s Day is an overly commercial holiday — and technically, they’re right. In Japan, Kobe Confectioner Morozoff introduced the holiday in 1936, with an advertisement in an English-language publication marketed primarily to foreigners. Many years later, the Isetan Department Store then had a “Valentine Sale”, but the concept of Valentine’s Day finally took hold in the 1970s and became popularized by schoolgirls giving chocolate to secret crushes and office ladies to co-workers, explains The Japan Times.
In Japan, giving and receiving chocolate on Valentine’s Day is less about romance and more about inter-office politics, between Japanese office ladies and the men for whom they work. The amount and type of chocolate given varies greatly, ranging from high-quality honmei-choko chocolate given primarily to valued or liked colleagues and bosses, to ultra-cheap chō-giri choko given purely out of obligation. A male employee’s popularity is translated into how much chocolate he receives. A well-liked manager can have mounds on his desk by day’s end, a visual “barometer of popularity” according to Yuko Ogasawara’s book Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies (page 101, if you’re curious).
To this end, office ladies can spend weeks figuring how much and what kind of chocolate to give, both officially and unofficially, showing their appreciation or lack thereof. Timing also matters, as women might wait until late in the day to give chocolate to someone they dislike, giving the impression that he might not be receiving any chocolate at all. With all of these details coming into play, it’s no surprise that Japanese chocolate companies make half their profits around Valentine’s Day.
As you may have noticed in the Japan Times article above, sweet (ha!) payback for all this work comes on March 14, known as White Day. This holiday was launched by confectionary companies in the 1980s as a way for men to make okaeshi (proper payback) for their Valentine’s Day gifts with white chocolate. (The initial attempts for something similar by a marshmallow manufacturer didn’t take hold). Men give gifts worth two or three times the value of the chocolate they have received, while giving something of equal value is a way to effectively cut the relationship. White Day gifts have recently expanded to include more than chocolate with jewelry, clothing, and lingerie.