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Valentine’s Day in Japan – A case study of consumption patterns of chocolate outside the West –

Thanks to many of the advertisers that have made great effort to commercialize religious events, we have come to strongly associate Valentine’s Day with gift-giving. In particular, we celebrate the day by sending cards, flowers, and chocolates to our loved ones. Chocolate hence has come to carry a connotation of love and caring, but is this the case in other countries also? How is Valentine’s Day celebrated in other countries and what roles does chocolate play in those cases?

Let us take a look at Japan. Valentine’s Day in Japan “constitutes a culturally hybridized holiday ritual” (Minowa et al. 44). As will be discussed in the remainder of this post, there are several key differences between how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Japan and in the US. This will give us insight into cultural differences between the two countries, and highlight important questions including those of gender roles and inequality. Further, “(i)n the 50 years since its introduction in Japan, it has metamorphosed in its meaning as a reflection of changes in social values, the national economy, and consumer ideology” (Minowa et al. 44, 45). As we will discover, the method in which this day is celebrated has changed quite rapidly, and this is due to the very nature of chocolate; given that it is a gift favored by such a large audience, it is capable of yielding a highly malleable consumer culture, and hence renders an opportune lens into cultural issues. The adaptation is extensive and has even made its way into the Japanese corporate culture. In short, we will use Valentine’s Day and chocolate to dig into the issues of gender roles and inequality in Japan.


1. Valentine chocolates in romantic relationships –As an amplifier of cultural norms–

One key difference between the Western tradition of Valentine’s Day and the Japanese adaptation is that it is “a time for women to give men chocolate” and not vice versa (Rupp 147). Looking at the historical context in which this tradition has developed, in the late 1970s, backed by the United Nations Decade for Women and the Japanese government’s

Loving Your Boss On Valentine's Day Lifts Japan's Candy Makers
Japanese women stream to department stores to purchase chocolates as Valentine’s Day approaches.

effort to eliminate gender inequalities, the proportion of females in the labor force started to grow (Minowa et al. 47). However, women were still marginalized, and treated as cheap, disposable workers (Minowa et al. 47). This created a situation in which women were becoming more financially independent to the point where it made sense for marketers to target them, but their financial independence was still weak to the point that their success in life still depended on finding a good husband that could provide them. This aligns with the emergence of lines of advertisement and articles for Valentine’s Day that emphasized “strategy” in their headlines, in which they “started to instruct women ‘how to’ beat rivals and win the man” (Minowa et al. 47). The culture of women gifting men on Valentine’s Day emerged from the social structure in Japan where women had to depend on men to succeed and therefore were motivated to win the right husband.


March 14th is White Day in Japan. This originated in the 1970s in the attempt to compensate for the gender asymmetry in Valentine’s Day (Rupp 149). According to Rupp, “on this day, men are supposed to make return gifts of white chocolate or other white

Men queuing at a Godiva shop in Japan to purchase White Day gifts.

sweets to the women who gave them dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day” (Rupp 149). Although this may seem to put men and women on equal grounds, we must note that there remains an inherent asymmetry caused by one gender initiating the action and the other responding a month later. In the Western world, there exists the criticism that classical gender roles often expect women to be submissive and the object of action, and the case of Valentine’s Day in Japan may seem to defy this at first glance. However, the Japanese Valentine’s Day still puts women as the object of action once they have expressed their interest in a romantic relationship on February 14th, since men reserve the power to choose whether or not to carry on with the potential relationship.



Men having the power to make the ultimate decision in a romantic relationship may be a phenomena observed elsewhere in the world and outside the context of Valentine’s Day, but chocolate advertisement and their marketing strategies have amplified this effect. Going back to the Western world for a moment, we observe a plethora of chocolate advertisements that assumes gender roles and portrays women as passive, ‘dumb’, or unintelligent sex objects (Gill 52). For instance, the following advertisement by Lindt assumes that it is the men’s role to send gifts to his girlfriend, thereby defining expected gender roles where men are the subject taking action and women are the object of the action. Although the roles are flipped in the Japanese Valentine’s Day culture since women is the subject initiating action, in both cases chocolate plays the role of amplifying these cultural norms.



2. Chocolate in workplaces –as a manifestation of inequality and resistance–

Unlike in the Western world where Valentine’s Day is a tradition exercised solely between very close ones, in Japan the culture has made its way into workplaces. In fact, the gift giving is exercised more actively in a non-romantic context, and in a survey by Morozoff Ltd, 84 percent of women gave chocolate to “people who helped them” and only 28 percent of those same women gave chocolate to lovers or spouses (Rupp 147).

What does Valentine’s in office look like in practice? Ogasawara provides a fascinating account on how “Office Ladies” or “OLs” in Japanese corporations executes this tradition. While such positions may not be as common today with some improvement in gender equality in the labor market, they were predominant around the time the culture of Valentine’s Day began to spread in Japan. OL is a position perhaps unique to Japanese companies, so I will quote the following brief description of what they are:

OLs are recruited immediately from universities and two-year colleges… Major tasks assigned to OLs include operating copiers and facsimile machines, performing elementary accounting, and doing word processing. They are also usually responsible for such chores as serving tea to their male colleagues or company visitors, wiping the surfaces of desks with wet towels, and receiving telephone calls… Perhaps because their work seems wholly superficial and nonproductive, some say that OLs’ major contribution to the office lies in their presence. Indeed, OLs were once frequently called ‘office flowers,’ implying that they served a decorative function and thereby inspired men to work hard. Partly in response to the influence of Western feminist thinking, this expression is no longer popular. However, the role OLs play in the organization has not changed much since the days when they were called ‘office flowers’. (Ogasawara 10)

An image of an “OL” serving tea around the time the culture of Valentine’s Day started to become accepted in Japan.

OLs start preparing for the event around two weeks in advance, getting together and deciding who to give what kind of chocolates. The day before Valentine’s Day, the OLs would busy themselves during lunch time wrapping gifts and writing cards that were to be given to the men. The morning of Valentine’s Day, the office kitchen is full of colorfully wrapped gifts waiting to be presented to men, and throughout the day, there is a flurry of activity in the office, women employees handing these chocolates out to male employees. It causes a huge loss of work time and clogs the internal mail system as many OLs decide to send chocolates to men in branch offices over mail (Ogasawara 98-101).

It is shocking to see how much of a big event Valentine’s Day is in the Japanese workplace, and just how much the OLs invest into this event. I claim that the emergence of such a culture stems from the existence of a role like OL. As Ogasawara’s description reveals, OLs take on monotonous and seemingly unimportant tasks. There must have been many women who were capable of doing much more that serving tea and taking copies, but were only able to land on an OL job given the large gender inequality in the Japanese labor market at the time of advent of the in-office Valentine’s Day tradition. These women drove the creation of this tradition, which continues to be executed today.

While Valentine’s Day at the workplace is clearly a manifestation of a deep gender equality, it can also be taken as a manifestation of resistance of the OLs to the situation. On the day, the OLs would show resistance against male bosses or co-workers that have treated the OLs arrogantly or inconsiderably by giving such members of the company no or few chocolates (Ogasawara 104). The tactics of revenge may even be as intricate as purposefully delaying and handing of the chocolate, or even giving broken pieces of chocolates (Ogasawara 105). These tactics were especially effective since on Valentine’s Day, the number of chocolate that was present on a male employer’s desk was a barometer of his popularity and respect from the women, and “the difference between a popular and not-so-popular man was shamelessly exposed in the open office environment” (Ogasawara 102).

As we have seen, chocolate allows us to dive deep into the cultural issues the Japanese society. We saw that in the context of romantic relationships, the Japanese celebration of Valentine’s manifests the power balance, and chocolate was an amplifier of this cultural norm. We also saw that in the context of a workplace, the celebration was a manifestation of gender inequality and resistance. While the workplace environment and the situation around OLs have changed greatly today, the existence of Valentine’s Day and how it’s lack of change testifies that some of the key underlying gender issues have not gone away.


Cited Works:

Gill, Rosalind Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising Feminism Psychology February 2008 vol. 18 no. 1 35-60

Ogasawara, Yuko. 1998. Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rupp, Katherine. 2003. Gift-giving in Japan: Cash, connections, cosmologies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Social Change and Gendered Gift-Giving Rituals: A Historical Analysis of Valentine’s Day in Japan Minowa, Yuko ; Khomenko, Olga ; Belk, Russell Journal of Macromarketing, Mar 2011, Vol.31(1), p.44 [Peer Reviewed Journal]










Chocolate Advertisement and Sexual Stereotypes

In this blog post, I will closely read the following advertisement issued by Lindt through various lenses including its surface meaning, cultural and ideological meaning, and semiotic analysis, in order to demonstrate the impact that sex has in chocolate advertising and the impact chocolate advertising has on sexual stereotypes. Then, I will present an original advertisement which solves such issues.


The surface meaning of the advertisement is that the Lindt chocolate is a desirable gift for a man to give his girlfriend. The image of the card that reads “happy Monday darling” reminds not only that “big boys” should buy Lindt chocolate for gifts, but also how they should purchase gifts for such small occasions, which is a marketing strategy aimed at increasing opportunities for men to purchase gifts, and hence, to purchase their chocolate products.

The cultural implication of the advertisement is a classical, heteronormative viewpoint of romantic relationships. First, out of all the words that could address the male audience, the diction of “big boys” is rather peculiar. It reminds the male reader of his parent telling him how he should behave. It is a phrase that is embedded in the childhood memories of most male audience, and hence, it is a voice of authority that could assert something even without proper reason. Such voice is especially effective in this situation where Lindt attempts to enforce the sexual norm of the man gifting the woman.

Another implication is the sexual symbolism of chocolate. According to Fahim,

Women indulging in chocolate in a sexual manner often appear in advertisements for chocolate.

“(a)dvertisers have mystified the commodity” and “advertisers portray chocolate as satisfying female sexual desires” (Fahim 2). While this particular advertisement by Lindt does not directly depict a woman indulged in chocolate, the picture of the box of chocolate in an undone wrapping and loosened ribbon carries a sexual resonance, especially given the context that it is a gift from a man to a woman. Fahim continues that “(t)hese ads are subjectifying since they help construct the subjective experience of the viewer” (Fahim 3). This advertisement is no exception, and contributes in constructing the social stereotype that women are easily delighted with chocolate.


How could one respond to these issues? According to Gill, a common approach in contemporary advertising is to shift the role of the women from “passive, ‘dumb’, or unintelligent sex objects” to “active, beautiful, smart, powerful sexual subjects” (Gill 52). While she generally praises these as positive shifts that offers “modernized representations of femininity that allow women power and agency”, she also points out some problems such as that they “operate within a profoundly heteronormative framework” (Gill 54).

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.51.20 PM

In order to sidestep these problems, my partner and I have chosen a picture that has a balanced mix of all genders, in order to elude any sexual stereotypes such as male giving gifts, and female indulging in chocolate. Further, we chose an image that displays friendship over romantic relationship, since we believe that the association of chocolate with asexual connections is an effective and modern approach to advertising chocolate. Chocolate and candy are marketed as products to be consumed with friends often in the context of Halloween and childhood, but when the audience is for adults, the romantic association is more frequently observed. Our catch “A touch of sweetness for any relationship” invites the society to the new perception of chocolate as a lubricant for friendship and camaraderie, even for adults.


Referenced Works

Gill, Rosalind Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising Feminism Psychology February 2008 vol. 18 no. 1 35-60

Fahim, Jamal, “Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing” (2010).Sociology Student Scholarship.

Lindt Advertisement

Friends at a bar×430.jpg

Godiva Advertisement

Cadbury and Sao Tome

Slavery has been an integral part of production of cacao for a long time. Even after its abolition by many states in the 19th and 20th century, forced labor continued to remain in reality in many of the colonies and plantation sites. The quote presented in lecture “Freeing the Negro without freeing the land is but half an abolition” by a Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco well represents how changes in law is not enough to truly eradicate slavery from the society.

The case of Portuguese West Africa in the early 20th century is an instance where nominal abolition of slavery did not fully eradicate it. Portugal had abolished slavery in the 1870s,

Shackles left on trees convinced Nevinson that slavery was still active in Portuguese West Africa.

and had replaced it with a state-supported system of contract labor, “wherein government agents certified that natives could sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage” (Satre, 2). When an English journalist Henry Nevinson visited Portuguese West Africa, he observed multiple indications that slavery is still alive such as human bones that littered sides of a trail on which captured slaves were thought to have walked on, and shackles that had bound hands and legs to prevent escape of the slaves which were left on the trees to be recovered by later trading parties (Satre 1). By the end of his trip, Nevinson concluded that the contract labor is simply another form of slavery (Satre 2).



Portrait of William Cadbury

Parallel to Nevinson’s visit, William Cadbury, owners of one of the largest chocolate companies in England at the time, had sent Joseph Burtt, a young Quaker, also to investigate the allegations that the plantation on the island of Sao Tome was using enslaved labor (Satre 13). He returned to England with similar accounts on the situation regarding slavery and submitted a report to Cadbury, but there was a significant delay in his accounts reaching the public due to several reasons. First, the Foreign Office requested Cadbury to edit certain sections of the report that may offend the Portuguese government, and Cadbury complied (Higgs 133). Second, Burtt’s report was to be endowed not only by Cadbury but also by his fellow chocolate makers, Fry, Rowntree, and Cologne. As a result of there being multiple players, “the flurry of letters continued through June and into July as the final form of Burtt’s report was negotiated” (Higgs 135).


Nevertheless, Nevinson’s report and Burtt’s report were not enough to convince Cadbury to boycott the purchase of cacao from Sao Tome, perhaps due to its high quality and attractive price. It was only after receiving criticism from three major British journals and securing apologies for them that he resolved to visit the islands and Angola himself (Higgs 143). After his six-month trip from September 1908 to March 1909, he was finally convinced of the ongoing slavery and the Portuguese government’s inability to enforce abolition. Within a week of his return to England, Cadbury formally decided to stop buying cocoa from the chocolate islands (Higgs 148).

It took four years for Cadbury to boycott buying cacao from these islands since Nevinson’s

The distance between Britain and Sao Tome delayed Cadbury’s decision, given the transportation means available in the early 20th century.

initial visit. One major cause of the delay was friction in communication and transportation. We see that the interaction between the Foreign Office, Cadbury, and the fellow chocolate makers were done over multiple mails, which obviously slowed down the process, maybe at times causing confusion and misunderstanding. Further, each visit to the chocolate islands from England ranged over multiple months; the dedication that these trips required may have deterred Cadbury from visiting the sites earlier.


Today, most of these frictions have been removed thanks to technological advances, and slavery has decreased significantly since the 20th century. Yet, modern chocolate industry still involves enforced labor to an extent. Why this cannot be cleared given improved communication and transport shall become clear in Unit 3 of the course.


Works cited:

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165

Multimedia sources cited:

World Atlas (

William A Cadbury Chariatble Fund (

Chomping At The Blooded Bit (



The Rotting Money

By the time of Spanish conquest, cacao was widely used as a medium of transaction in pan-Mesoamerica (Coe et al. 60). While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the way in which goods were exchanged with cacao beans more exhibits a behavior of currency rather than that of bartering. For instance, in a facsimile from the Codex Mendoza, the prices of jaguar skins and stone bowls are given in terms of numbers of cacao beans (“CHOCOLATE”).


Use of cacao was not restricted to such large purchases, and “Ovieda, whose history was published in 1526 states that in Nicaragua: everything is bought with cacao, however expensive or cheap, such as gold, slaves, clothing, things to eat and everything else” (Wood et al. 2). These sources show how cacao beans were used for both large and small daily transactions, and how they were eligible to be called a currency.

One of the reasons that cacao was able to function as a currency is that they were relatively rare and valuable. It “refuses to bear fruit outside a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. Nor is it happy within this band of the tropics if the altitude is so high as to result in temperatures that fall below 60F or 16C”, which makes it one of the most labor intensive crops even today (Coe et al. 19).

One interesting difference of cacao beans from more common commodity money such as gold or silver is that they rot and decay over time. Even in modern conditions, stored with much care, cacao beans will last edible only up to nine months (Paretts). With regards to this property of cacao as a currency, Peter Maytr, one of the earlier observers of the Aztec community commented “Oh, blessed money which … preserveth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of avarice because it cannot be long kept hid underground”(“Encyclopedia of Money”). Aztec people were forced to spend the money that they earned for consumption or investment, which naturally would have boosted the economy growth, in addition to being free from the sin of avarice as Maytr puts it. It goes without saying that the Mesoamerican civilizations had an active economy and market, and this unique characteristic of cacao beans as a midpoint between deteriorating commodity and standardized currency may have been a major contributor of this.

I cannot help but compare this phenomena with the development of capitalism in Northern Europe as described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Weber. He suggests that because the Protestant ethics condemned greed and unnecessary accumulation of wealth, the spread of this religion encouraged the emergence of capitalism. Despite numerous major differences between the two societies, it is intriguing to see that both had mechanisms that deterred the accumulation of wealth, and an active market economy.

As possible next steps, it would be interesting to look into market activity throughout time and space in the Mesoamerican region, and correlate it with the spread of cacao as a commodity and currency. Further, we could compare this with how the spread of more classical fiat money like gold and sliver affects the economy.


Works / Reference Cited

“Encyclopedia of Money.” : Cocoa Bean Currency. Accessed February 19, 2016.

“CHOCOLATE.” : Food of the Gods. Accessed February 19, 2016.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Paretts, Susan. “Storage & Shelf Life of Raw Cacao Beans.” EHow. Accessed February 19, 2016.

Wood, G. A. R., and R. A. Lass. Cocoa. Oxford: Blackwell Science, 2001. currency history&lr&pg=PA2#v=onepage&q=cocoa currency history&f=true.