In Japan, even Valentine’s Day is done differently. It’s women — and women alone — who are expected to give chocolate to their partners. But it doesn’t stop there. Women are also expected to give chocolate to their colleagues, friends, bosses and sometimes family members. These are called giri-choko (義理チョコ) or “obligation chocolates.” It’s not very romantic and it can be quite expensive.
In Japanese, giri (義理), meaning honor or duty, is a word beloved by the yakuza, who associate it with risking their lives or paying huge fees. The word itself gives an idea of the burdensome nature of giri-choko.
On February 1, in a full page ad in Japan’s leading business newspaper, Nikkei Shimbun, Belgian confection maker Godiva called for an end to the practice of giving obligation chocolate. The response was tremendous, provoking online debates and numerous articles in the Japanese press. According to the Chocolate and Cocoa Association of Japan, more than $500 million is spent by Japanese consumers each year on Valentine’s Day, so the economic ramifications are not small. While Japan is increasingly fond of good quality chocolate at a reasonable price, chocolates sales are also heavily influenced by Valentine’s Day.
The Japanese text of the advertisement, credited to Godiva Japan president Jerome Chouchan, states: “Of course, it’s good to give chocolates to the person you really love, but there’s no need for obligation chocolates. In fact, in this modern era, it’s better not to have them.” It notes that there are many women who dislike the practice and holiday.
The text also contains a meditation on the true meaning of the holiday. “Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day when you confess your true feelings. It’s not a day on which you’re supposed to go out of your way to keep good relations at work.” The ad then encourages Japan’s top business executives to essentially enforce a ban on obligation chocolates.
Reactions to the ad
The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading liberal newspaper, summarized the public response as generally favorable. It noted there were also voices of opposition. Some accused Godiva Japan of stealth marketing, pointing out that the more expensive Godiva brand goods were rarely bought as obligation chocolates, so if the practice stops, the impact for them is minor and might even benefit their sales. On Twitter and other social media, there were many voices calling the ad, “yokei na osewa,” a Japanese phrase meaning “unwanted kindness” but one that also has the oblique meaning of “buzz off” when used in conversation.
Daniel Fath, a public relations consultant with over a decade of work experience in Japan, had mixed reviews for the campaign. “The debate over giri-chocolate isn’t new, and Godiva Japan may very well feel strongly about a woman’s right to defy office ‘tradition.’ Companies that want a voice in the conversations shaping social change usually demonstrate sustained engagement with stakeholder audiences to be taken seriously. Otherwise their actions might be taken for a one-off marketing ploy.”
An advertising executive in Tokyo, who asked not to be named, “because Godiva would be a great client to have,” said it was a brilliant move. “They are trying to be progressive without losing sales. They’re telling people, ‘you are free to choose’ and that is the excuse people need in order to buy. They know they are free to choose but need the brand to acknowledge it as well. The campaign is already a big success since it generated a lot of coverage and discussion for them.”
Tomoko Ishii, who works at a marketing research firm in Kanagawa Prefecture, said she approved of the ad. “It gets expensive to buy chocolates for coworkers and you always have to worry about mixed signals. You have to think about how much to spend. They can’t be too cheap either, or that could be insulting.” According to one survey conducted by Macromill in 2015, the average budget for Japanese working women (aged 20-49) for Valentine’s Day chocolates was 4,986 yen ($45).
“Of course,” Ishii added diplomatically, “there are some coworkers I want to express my appreciation for.” She says if her boss would order people not to give giri-choco it would relieve her of the yearly burden of decision.
Essayist and author, Kaori Shoji, is skeptical. When asked for comment, she opined, “I’d like to say, ‘Shame on you Godiva!’ For decades they profited off the sense of obligation and duty branded into the soul of most every Japanese woman on the face of the archipelago and now they’re reinventing themselves as the champion of true love.”
Questions sent to the company about the public reaction were returned with the following comments, attributed to Chouchan. It reads, in part, “We’d like to see people enjoy Valentine’s Day not as something done out of a sense of obligation or custom or ritual, but as a day when people can ‘freely’ express their feelings and love.”
Only Chouchan, Godiva Japan’s president, really knows the “true feelings” behind the advertisement. He may be completely sincere, but if his aim was to strike controversy in Japanese society, he certainly hit a bullseye. One thing is certain, an end to obligation chocolates in Japan would make Valentine’s Day here a lot more enjoyable — or at least less stressful.
More Info: www.forbes.com
Categories: Money Matters