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Roses are red, elbows are blue: Japanese women fight for their Valentines

Elbowing each other in the stampede to buy Valentine's Day chocolate for the men in their lives, Japanese women brought stores to a standstill Saturday.

[TOKYO] Elbowing each other in the stampede to buy Valentine's Day chocolate for the men in their lives, Japanese women brought stores to a standstill Saturday.

In Japan, the menfolk do sweet nothing on February 14 while the women do battle in heaving aisles, loading up on confectionery treats for the object of their desire.

If they are lucky, the guys will reciprocate on White Day in March, when traditionally they give a white gift, from sweets to lingerie.

"My feet hurt, my arms hurt, and my head hurts!" winced Kana Shimizu, clutching two dainty bags of Belgian chocolate that cost more than 10,000 yen (S$125.8) at a plush store in Tokyo's Ginza district.

"This one is for my boyfriend, the other one is for me. I don't want him having all the fun." Having splurged on "honmei" (true love) chocolate, the 27-year-old hair stylist raced off to find somewhere less upmarket to buy "giri" (obligation) treats for her male work colleagues.

"They can make do with cheap chocolate," she laughed. "No, seriously. It's such a pain every year." Entire floors of Japan's cavernous department stores are dedicated to Valentine's Day, showcases brimming with heart-shaped goodies by international chocolatiers.

"I'm here with my wife," said 42-year-old architect Riki Taniguchi. "I've got my eye on the Belgian chocolate but I'm not sure she thinks I deserve it." Valentine's Day first appeared in Japan in the late 1950s as the economy picked up steam after the devastation of World War II and Western products were highly prized as the country acquired a taste for sophistication and luxury.

At the time, a firm called Mary Chocolate advertised February 14 as "the only day of the year a woman professes her love through presenting chocolate" - establishing it as Japan's currency of romance, to the chagrin of florists, jewellers and makers of skimpy lingerie.

Chocolate has been available in Japan since the late 18th century, when Dutch traders - the only Europeans allowed a foothold in an otherwise closed country - gave it to prostitutes as a form of payment.

These days, it seems, almost anything goes and couples can share a bowl of chocolate-drizzled ramen noodles, tuck into McDonald's chocolate fries or even hop into a chocolate hot spring bath courtesy of some of the most bizarre recent marketing gimmicks.

Half of Japan's US$11 billion chocolate business, Asia's biggest, is spent in February, retailers say.

It is not hard to see why: a department store in Osaka recently unveiled a chocolate cake topped with 125 diamonds that will set you back an eye-watering US$125,000.

In Tokyo, chocolates released by British rockers The Rolling Stones decorated with the tongue-flapping Mick Jagger logo, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their first Japan tour in 1990, were selling out fast.

"I rushed over on my lunch break to buy some, but they had sold out," said 45-year-old fan Mariko Imai. "No satisfaction," she deadpanned.

Proving that, even in Japan, and even on Valentine's Day, you can't always get what you want.