It may be a bit late, but for the record 20 percent of all chocolate sales in Japan are connected to Valentine’s Day. Everyone who’s lived in Japan for any length of time knows the ritual: On Valentine’s Day, women give gifts of chocolate to the men in their lives, whether they love them or not, and then on March 14 — White Day, as it’s been dubbed — men are supposed to reciprocate. The custom of giri-choco, or chocolate that’s given to men as a kind of “obligation” (i.e., work superiors and colleagues) didn’t develop until the early ’90s. In fact, giving chocolate to one’s lover wasn’t widespread here until the ’70s. Though Valentine’s Day sort of took off after the war, there were no hard and fast rules. You just gave sweets to your boy/girlfriend or spouse, and not necessarily chocolate.
This year, chocolate makers have been especially hopeful about sales for two reasons. This is the first Valentine’s Day in three years that falls on a weekday, and manufacturers think women will be buying more giri-choco for their male co-workers, even though figures show that custom seems to be fading overall. In fact, most confectioners are predicting double-digit increases over last year’s sales. The second bright spot is that women seem to have expanded their circle of chocolate recipients. Now there’s something called tomo-choco, meaning chocolate that is given to friends, specifically other women. This development seems to be in response to the general feeling that men who receive giri-choco don’t necessarily want to receive it, so women basically exchange chocolate with other women. Taking this idea to its solipsistic end, there’s even something called gohobi-choco, which is chocolate, usually expensive chocolate, that you give to yourself. (Gohobi in this case means to “reward” yourself).
In any event, one chocolate maker, Glico, says that according to its research, the average young woman who gives chocolate on Valentine’s Day gives it to more than 10 persons. Another confectioner, Lotte, found in a survey of females ranging from junior high school students to 40-somethings that the average woman will spend ¥3,266 on chocolate during this Valentine’s Day season, which is a 16 percent increase over last year’s actual average sales.
There are reasons not to give chocolate, as well, the main one being that the prime ingredient, cocoa, is a notoriously exploitative crop. About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from four African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. The bulk of this crop is cultivated and harvested with child labor, much of it unpaid. Japan imports more than 55,000 tons of cocoa a year, 69 percent of which is from Ghana, so there’s a good chance that if you buy chocolate made by the usual domestic companies it’s going to be the product of slave labor. Fair Trade labels aren’t always a guarantee in this situation since a lot of plantations in Africa that use slave labor have in the past managed to still get covered by fair trade agreements, and according to Amnesty International, only 0.5 percent of the retail price of a chocolate product makes it back to the grower anyway. But most of the fair trade chocolate sold in Japan is from Bolivia, which seems to have better labor conditions than Africa does. Top Valu, a discount brand sold at Aeon, Saty and Jusco supermarkets, offers Fair Trade chocolate, so that’s an option for gift-givers with consciences and tight budgets.