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Godiva is leading the charge to shake-up Japan’s corporate culture on Valentine’s Day

Drinking with colleagues, not leaving work before your boss does, employing painstaking levels of honorifics in everyday communication—the list of professional do’s and don’ts in Japan runs long.

Even Valentine’s Day gets the corporate treatment in Japan. Every year on Feb. 14, women are expected to give what’s known as giri choco to their male colleagues, a practice that’s intended as a show of appreciation to coworkers—giri means “duty” or “obligation” in Japanese. The gifts, however, are meant to be inexpensive and typically cost around or below ¥500 ($4.60) to differentiate from the romantic honmei chocolates intended for a crush or a lover.

In Japan, the practice is for women to give chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day—men return the favor a month later on White Day (a practice also prevalent in South Korea). Chocolate-giving on Valentine’s Day took root in the 1950s, and like many other anniversaries or holidays in Japan, was driven by corporations hoping to use such occasions to sell products in the boom years of the post-war era when adopting Western customs was the norm. To break the taboo around women confessing their feelings to men, chocolate companies also pushed Valentine’s Day as a socially acceptable time for women to do so, Harumichi Yamada, a professor of social sciences and geography at Tokyo Keizai University, told the Japan Times.

Now, chocolate company Godiva is encouraging women to stop feeling pressure to partake in yet another professional obligation. Last week it took out a full page advertisement in the Nikkei, Japan’s main business paper, urging managers to tell their female employees that it’s OK not to take part in the practice if they didn’t want to.

“Valentine’s Day is the day people convey their true feelings, not the day people coordinate relationships at work,” said the ad signed by Godiva Japan president Jerome Chouchan. According to (link in Japanese) national broadcaster NHK, Chouchan, who has lived in Japan for over 20 years, said he felt “pained” as a chocolate maker that people feel they must attach a sense of duty and formality to a pleasurable thing like gifting chocolate.

Indeed, many Japanese women feel (link in Japanese) that the practice is burdensome and are only doing it out of obligation anyway—a sentiment mirrored by the recipients themselves. Jon D. Holzman, an anthropologist who studies sweets as part of the culture of food in Japan, wrote that some men have such disdain for the holiday that they have started to “‘politely refuse the gifts because they wish to avoid the reciprocal obligation of returning the gift in March,” while some offices have started to ban it. And in fact, the practice has been in decline for some time owing to Japan’s sluggish economic growth.

But it seems that Godiva’s plea has touched a nerve in Japan at a time when the country is trying to reform both workplace culture and gender equality. The government is trying, for example, to get companies to shed their rigid practices, by introducing flexible working arrangements or committing to banning overtime, in the hope that it can raise productivity levels and prevent worker burnout. Doing away with the practice of giving giri choco might be a symbolic and small step toward making progress in both—though there’s still plenty more opportunities for obligatory gift-giving the rest of the calendar year.

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