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Giri Choco: On Valentine's Day, Japanese Women 'Traditionally' Give Chocolate To Male Coworkers

Recent History | February 13, 2020

Women buy boxes of chocolates as gifts before Valentine's Day at a Tokyo department store. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP via Getty Images)

If you're in Japan around February 14, you'll find retailers selling beautifully packaged chocolates just as you would in other parts of the world. These Japanese chocolates, however, may serve a different purpose from typical Valentine's Day gifts. They may be giri choco, chocolates that women purchase for business associates or other men for whom they have no romantic feelings. Let's look at how giri choco started and how it is viewed today. 

"Giri choco" literally means "obligation chocolate". (alchetron.com)

What Is Giri Choco?

Giri choco literally translates to "obligation chocolate," which is one of the few combinations of words that can turn delicious candy into sadness. According to custom, women give the small, inexpensive packages of sweets to the men in their workplace. Obligation chocolate can also be given to friends, acquaintances, and even family members on Valentine's Day. Giving giri choco to some guy is the equivalent of saying "I acknowledge your existence, but this isn't going to happen."

A Russian chocolatier introduced Valentine's Day to Japan. (rbth.com)

How Did Giri Choco Start?

Valentine's Day is a western holiday with Roman Catholic roots that morphed into a day of romance marked by the giving of roses and chocolates. In western culture, this giving is traditionally performed by men, so how did it get turned around in Japan?

In 1936, a candy company in Kobe called Morozoff Ltd., which was owned by a Russian immigrant, sought to increase chocolate sales by introducing Valentine's Day to Japan. But something went wrong. 

Giri choco has a totally different meaning from the western cultures' Valentine's Day gifts. (jcccw.org)

A Tradition Started By A Translation Error?

According to urban myths about the origins of giri choco, an error in translation may have led to the tradition of women giving chocolate to the men in their non-romantic lives. The story goes that the Russian executives misunderstood a westerner's explanation of the holiday, but it's also possible that chocolate companies targeted women in their ads just because they were the ones who did the shopping

In the decades since, more and more chocolatiers began offering obligation chocolate on Valentine's Day. Today, this tradition accounts for about half of all chocolate sales for Japanese companies. 

White chocolates are given to female associates on White Day. (bokksu.com)

Reciprocation On White Day

The one-sidedness of obligation chocolate led to the creation of another gift-giving office holiday, White Day. Celebrated on March 14, this is the day when men give chocolates or cookies to the women in their workplaces, friend groups, and/or families. To distinguish these gifts from giri choco, white chocolates are given on this day, hence the name.

Buying all that chocolate turned into a financial burden. (rafu.com)

The Stress Of Obligation Chocolate

For some women, giri choco has become an anxiety-ridden tradition. If you forget anyone, especially at work, you could make a career-long enemy. If the chocolates you give are too small or inexpensive, you look cheap, but if they're too big or fancy, you look like you're trying to one-up the other women in your office. Because of these fraught implications, not to mention the expense of buying chocolate for every man you barely know even if you hit the exact right price point, many Japanese companies have banned the practice in their offices in recent years.

Giri choco may be on its way out. (sorennews22.com)

Is Giri Choco Falling Out Of Favor?

If you think the practice of obligation chocolate sounds sexist and archaic, you're not alone. Many women (and men) in Japan balk at the tradition, feeling that the unnecessary expense promotes inequality. While as many as 60% of Japanese people still participate in the Valentine's Day tradition, it's far from a universal practice.

Chocolates for all on Valentine's Day! (jpninfo.com)

A New Marketing Approach?

In recent years, those chocolate companies who desperately need to keep this tradition alive have launched increasingly fervent marketing campaigns to keep chocolate sales high while promoting new forms of candy gifting. For example, they now encourage large corporations to give chocolates to all employees on Valentine's Day, regardless of gender, as a token of their appreciation. Restaurants, airlines, and some retail locations give small pieces of chocolate to all their customers on February 14. 

Romantic dinners are more of a Christmas Eve thing in Japan. (blog.cherishx.com)

Where's The Romance?

If you're wondering why Japanese couples don't celebrate Valentine's Day with roses and candlelit dinners, rest assured that romance is alive and well in Japan; it just happens on a different day. Christmas Eve is typically the day when couples plan a romantic date night to celebrate their relationship. It certainly beats tofurkey with the in-laws.

Tags: 1930s | holidays | japan | valentines gift history

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.