When Culture meets Social

This article was written by Basudhara Choudhuri.

The Japanese are known worldwide for their politeness. Much has been said by tourists and foreign residents, in praise of how mindful the Japanese are, of people around them. Earlier this year, after Japan’s loss to Belgium in the FIFA World Cup, disappointed fans stayed back to clean up the stadium; winning innumerable hearts and proving to the world that respect is a firm cornerstone in their culture. This tradition of respect is not meant only to honour strangers and guests. A brief peek into Japanese festivals reveals just how deeply their traditions infuse politeness even into relationships with near and dear ones.

Ochugen (midsummer gift) and Oseibo (end-of-year gift) are two annual gifts of gratitude, traditionally given by the Japanese to acknowledge the contributions of the people in their lives. These gifts are given to family members, colleagues, bosses, friends, and even customers and businesses.

Ochugen and Oseibo are not the only occasions to express courtesy. The Japanese have adopted occasions that are not traditionally Japanese and moulded their culture into it. Valentine’s Day is an example of one such celebration. In most places in the world, Valentine’s Day is meant for people to express romantic love to one another; in Japan, things are done a little differently. On the 14th of February, women gift chocolates to the men in their lives, and the celebration isn’t just about love and romance. Valentine’s Day sees women gifting different categories of chocolates: Honmei Choco (romantic chocolate), Giri Choco (obligation chocolate), Tomo Choco (chocolate shared between female friends) and Jibun Choco (chocolate for self). Among these, Giri Choco is a category that stands out. Giri Choco essentially refers to inexpensive chocolates given to male coworkers and casual acquaintances; people that women do not have any romantic attachment with. These are considered to be gifted out of a sense of responsibility and duty, instead of affection. Men are not exempt from gifting; on the 14th of March, men must return the gesture shown by the women in their lives.

Gifting out of respect for the company one keeps has been woven very tightly into Japanese culture. However, instances of a slight shift in this popular mindset are being observed; thanks to social media platforms. Earlier this year, Belgian brand Godiva took a stance against this form of chocolate gifting, just before Valentine’s Day.

On February 1st, in a full-page advertisement in the Nihon Keizaki Shimbun (a financial newspaper); Jerome Chouchan (President – Godiva Japan), suggested that the practice of Giri Choco has become obsolete and should be discontinued. The translated text of the advertisement reads:

Japan, let’s stop the Giri Choco practice.

There are women who say they hate Valentine’s Day, and there are also women who feel relieved when Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend. Why? Because of the difficulty and inconvenience of thinking of who to give Giri Choco to, and then having to buy it. They have to spend mental energy and money, but it’s hard to break the cycle, and they feel irritated about the custom every year.

We at Godiva speak from experience, because we see this happen annually. Of course it’s OK to give chocolate to someone you have genuine feelings for, but it’s OK not to give anyone Giri Choco. Honestly, in this day and age, it’s better not to. This is what we’ve come to believe.

Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day when you tell someone your pure feelings. It’s not a day on which you’re supposed to do something extra for the sake of smooth relations at work. So men, especially if you’re the top person in your company, tell the women in your office “Don’t force yourself to give anyone Giri Choco.”

We want more people to experience the joy of telling people their feelings, and we want them to enjoy Valentine’s Day more than they do now. “I love you.” “I adore you.” “Thank you, truly.” Those aren’t things you say to be polite. From now on, we want to continue giving these earnest sentiments an important place in our hearts.”

As expected, the advertisement caught public attention. People reacted to it on social media, primarily Twitter. Of 2800 tweets mentioning Godiva during Valentine’s Day in Japan, 2300 included the words ‘obligation’ or ‘Giri Choco’ although Godiva is too expensive to be categorised as an ‘obligation chocolate’. Many welcomed Godiva’s stance and agreed with the immense expense of time and effort on buying/ gifting Giri Choco. While some requested for the practice to be banned from corporate culture, others praised their own companies for having already abolished the practice at their workplace.

As with most issues on social, there were also many who considered Godiva’s stance somewhat insincere. An expensive brand like Godiva speaking against the practice of Giri Choco led many to feel that the brand’s encouragement (to give up on Giri Choco custom) was to earn goodwill, without losing sales. Some believed that by encouraging people to give up on Giri Choco, Godiva hoped to have them save that money to buy more expensive chocolates like Godiva for themselves or loved ones; thereby actually increasing sales.

In response to the conversation generated by Godiva, a local brand ‘Black Thunder’ tweeted a simple message. The translated tweet reads:

It seems like a lot of people are talking about a certain advertisement.

You do you, and we’ll do us.

Everyone has different ways of thinking, and that’s fine. At Yuraku Confectionary, we support the culture of taking an opportunity to say thanks to someone for all the little kindnesses they’ve shown you, just like we always have.

Along with the tweet was an image of a Black Thunder display, with the phrase “Chocolate that you can immediately tell is Giri Choco” in bold Japanese letters.

Black Thunder’s response tweet also received attention; and people praised the brand for its honesty. Black Thunder owns the position of being a chocolate meant uniquely for courtesy and Giri Choco, because of it being inexpensive yet tasty. While there were a few responses criticising Black Thunder for siding with a tedious practice, most appreciated the brand for staying true to its identity.

Traditions are built (and modify) over time. It is near-impossible for a single entity to cause overnight paradigm shifts in tradition. Yet, with social media in the picture, the rate of change of traditions has been accelerated. Ideas & opinions can be expressed quickly to a large population; allowing change to spread faster. Suggesting deviance from tradition is still a risk, but it is now easier to find voices of assent through social media. Even a culture as traditional as Japan’s can see a change in landscape quicker than one may have thought was possible. As of now, time will tell whether Godiva’s move can be considered a harbinger of a change for Japanese gifting.

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