Bittersweet campaign to liberate Japanese office workers from Valentine’s tyranny
From campaigns by prime ministers and CEOs, to lobbying from union heads and labour activists, the attempts to remodel Japanese office culture have been distinguished but disappointing. Hope now rests with a Belgian chocolatier.
Godiva has chosen Valentine’s Day for a broadside on trying to change workplace attitudes.
Specifically, the time-honoured phenomenon of the giri choco — literally “obligation chocolate”. Each February 14, women feel obliged to buy chocolates and distribute them evenly to their male co-workers (usually with gritted teeth).
The men must then return the “favour” a month later — the convention is that the value of their chocolate offerings be around twice that of those they received.
The social pulleys engineering this bit of stagecraft are as impressive as they are unsettling. There are two distinct obligations that compel the purchase of the giri choco and ratchet up its scale: a fear of nonalignment with the unwritten rules of the office, and the need to appear even-handed by buying something for everyone.
A friend describes a panic after she and her colleagues made a solemn pact on February 13 that they would appear empty-handed at work the following day, only to find themselves haring off to the nearest confectioner when one of their number broke ranks the next morning.
Giri choco buying is banal, burdensome and sustained by a dread of nonconformity — the very same recipe that has locked Japanese office work in decades of productivity torpor.
It may be the perfect moment to shape public policy.
Last week, in a neat stroke of marketing, Godiva’s Japan head, Jerome Chouchan, took out a full-page advert in the Nikkei newspaper (chosen for its audience of business executives), calling for an end to the mental imprisonment of the giri choco.
The advertisement notes the sense of relief that descends across corporate Japan in those blessed years when Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend.
Absolutely you should give chocolates (hint: Godiva) to someone special, Chouchan argues in the lengthy letter, but giri choco no longer has a place in this day and age. Valentine’s is not a day, he writes, on which you should feel forced to do “something extra for the sake of smooth relations at work”.
The letter concludes by exhorting male readers, “especially if you are the top person in your company”, to formally absolve female staff of giri choco obligations.
Godiva does not quite spell it out, but the shadow cast by giri choco is part of a much larger darkness in Japan’s office culture for which few good solutions have been devised.
Japanese white-collar workplaces are hardly unique in allowing peer pressure and convention to reign, but the annual giri choco misery offers an uncomfortable reminder of just how potent they are as a force of resistance to change.
Giri choco is on a spectrum of unspoken obligations which, at their most destructive, create the impulses that make the workplace bullying of pregnant women or new mothers — “maternity harassment” — a real thing, and leave the phenomenon of karoshi — “death by overwork” — seemingly impossible to dislodge.
Even good ideas — to reduce, for example, the culture of overwork — often end up wrecked by workplace norms genetically programmed to resist evolution.
A year ago, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry tried to establish “premium Friday” where, once a month, the week would finish at 3pm.
Almost as the scheme was announced, companies and entire sectors of the economy formed a queue to explain why they would have to be exempted.
But they needn’t have bothered: the same suite of obligations and fears that lies behind giri choco prevented a buy-in to premium Friday. The trade ministry, when asked, claims the scheme will dutifully trudge on, but the very people it was intended to uplift have already declared it dead.
Godiva’s stand, however self-serving as a piece of marketing, is an important one, as Valentine’s Day 2018 will show. Yet it is a safe bet that even if orders to abandon giri choco are passed down, they will be ignored and Japan will go on observing its bittersweet traditions.