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Heart-shaped madness as Japanese women splurge for Valentine's Day

[TOKYO] Japanese women jostled feverishly for elbow room at stores on Friday to buy Valentine's Day chocolates for the men in their lives - guys who do sweet nothing in return.

While the ladies splurge on the object of their desire - as well as friends, colleagues and bosses - men simply wait for the goodies to pour in on February 14 and gorge to their heart's content.

It's a far cry from the Western version of Valentine's Day with its saucy commercials featuring handsome hunks swooping in to leave a box of chocolates on a lover's bed.

Although the confectionery traffic is one-way in Japan, the country celebrates White Day next month, when men are required to reciprocate with a white gift - from cookies to lingerie.

"It's madness today," said Masako Fukuda, as she clutched a dainty bag of Belgian cocoa truffles which set her back a cool 8,000 yen (US$66).

"This is for my hubby," she added after battling the crowds in a department store in Tokyo's swank Ginza district. "I'll get some cheaper chocolate for my co-workers." Having splashed out on her "honmei" (true love) chocolate, which is reserved for husbands or lovers, the 45-year-old expected her Valentine's bill to top 10,000 yen once she had bought "giri" (obligation) treats for the men at her office.

At the Takashimaya department store, an entire floor has been dedicated to Valentine's Day and women flocked to the "Amour du Chocolat" exhibition to sample the latest mouth-watering creations from international chocolatiers cashing in on their chic image.

Shoppers stood patiently in queues snaking around corners to purchase chocolates made by French company Dalloyau, or Belgian confectioners Pierre Marcolini's heart-shaped delicacies.

"I hope I get given French chocolate," joked banker Teruaki Noda, 38. "If my girlfriend is stingy again this year, she won't get anything on White Day." 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 brought an air of sophistication as the country acquired a taste for 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" - thus establishing it as Japan's currency of romance, dealing a blow to 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.

Times have changed, however, and eccentric couples can even celebrate Valentine's Day by hopping into a chocolate hot spring bath.

Half of Japan's US$11 billion chocolate business - the biggest in Asia - is spent in February, according to retailers. But some women opt for a more frugal approach.

"I make chocolate myself," said 22-year-old student Haruko Kawabe. "I've been doing it since elementary school. Every year I would make chocolate for the boy I liked. It's less embarrassing to tell someone you like them by giving chocolate on Valentine's Day."