February 11, 2006

Japanese women treat themselves on Valentine’s Day

By Miho Yoshikawa

TOKYO (Reuters) - It used to be Japanese women gave men a
gift of chocolates on Valentine's Day.

These days, they're more likely to buy pricey chocolates
costing up to $200 a box as a treat for themselves.

"It's a small luxury that I allow myself," said 39-year-old
Reiko Nozawa, who usually buys champagne truffles for herself
and a few other chocolates to share with her husband.

Nozawa is not alone.

Makers of 60 premium chocolate brands have set up special
booths at Takashimaya Co., a department store in central Tokyo,
where boxes of chocolates costing as much as 10,000-20,000 yen
($84-$168) are selling briskly, helped by Japan's economic

"There's been a trend the past two or three years for women
to buy chocolates for themselves, as a sort of pat on the back
for having worked hard," said Takashimaya spokeswoman Yoko

That can be on top of what they spend on others.

"I think I'll buy some premium chocolates for myself," said
Yoshiko Okajima, a fashionably attired working mother, as she
checked out chocolates for herself after spending 7,000 yen on
her husband and 8-year-old son.

Tokyo is filled with Valentine Day chocolate adverts in the
days leading up to February 14, and some manufacturers rake in
about 20-30 percent of their annual sales in a few short weeks.

Until recently, most Japanese women bought
cellophane-wrapped sweets in bulk from drugstores to give to
colleagues or school friends as an "obligatory chocolate" on
Valentine's Day.

A month later on "White Day" men return the favor by giving
women gifts -- usually sweets but sometimes lingerie.

Confectionary maker Morozoff Ltd. is widely credited with
having introduced Valentine's Day to Japan in a 1936
advertisement for chocolates.

"If we'd been a florist, no doubt we would have tried to
sell flowers," Morozoff spokesman Kazuo Kojima said.

Some two decades later, Mary Chocolate Co. Ltd. used
Valentine's Day as a sales promotion for its chocolates, in
what is generally believed to be the first such commercial
endeavour. The company only sold three chocolate bars during
the three-day event in February 1958. Total sales -- 150 yen.

Almost a half-century later, Japan's Valentine Day
chocolate sales have blossomed into a 50-billion-yen market.


Upscale chocolate boutiques have sprouted up all over
Tokyo, to cash in on increasingly sophisticated palates.

At Belgium-based Pierre Marcolini in Tokyo's trendy Ginza
district a steady flow of customers peer at ribboned gift boxes
in a glass display.

Customers are ushered in by a young woman whose task is to
ensure the softly-lit, modest-sized store doesn't get too

"It is pretty expensive, but I think they are worth the
price and I like them," said a 36-year-old junior high school
teacher carrying a sweet-filled bag marked with the store's

Such consumers are likely to help Japan's market for
chocolate sweets, some 235,487 tonnes in 2004/05, and cocoa,
roughly 56,634 tonnes, grow at a modest pace, said Kenji
Kaminaga, executive director of the Chocolate & Cocoa
Association of Japan.

"I think sales of premium chocolates are definitely helping
to support the market," Kaminaga said.

Premium chocolates are often imported from countries like
Belgium and France, with imports worth 36.8 billion yen in
2004/05, up about 36 percent from a decade ago, according to
association estimates.

Chocolate aficionados are also beginning to favor
high-quality sweets with a high cocoa content and complex
tastes, achieved by blending bulk beans with prized flavour
beans from countries like Venezuela and Ecuador.

Japanese, however, are still modest chocolate consumers by
global standards, swallowing about 2.2 kg per person each year,
compared to Switzerland's 11.3 kg and Germany's 10.5 kg.