Chocolate is synonymous with Valentine's Day all over the world, but in Japan, where the sector generates around 20 percent of its annual sales during this time, it is driven by an unique custom where women gift chocolates to men.

The chocolate industry generated the most money in Japan's confectionery sector with sales of 550 billion yen ($4.95 billion) in 2017, according to recent data by the Chocolate and Cocoa Association of Japan (CCAJ) and the national confectioners association (ANKA).

However, while in other countries only lovers exchange gifts on this day, Japanese women have been gifting chocolates to their partners, as well as male friends, employers and co-workers for over half a century.

The tradition became popular in the 1950s but can be traced as far back as 1936, when confectionery brand Morozoff, headquartered in Kobe in central Japan, had placed an ad in an English-language local newspaper urging women to gift chocolates to their loved ones.

The tradition, however, waned over the years especially over the custom of gifting "giri choco" or "obligation chocolate" at the workplace, a practice which seven out of 10 Japanese women view as a burden.

For Kaori Tanaka, a 58-year-old housewife, the tradition is equally bittersweet for the men.

She says that her son does not like the custom of being gifted "giri-choco" by his female colleagues as he is expected to reciprocate a month later on White Day, when men often end up spending more on buying gifts for the women.

The custom is also considered sexist and is one of the reasons for a dip in chocolate sales this year in Japan during Valentine's Day.

According to the Japan Anniversary Association, sale of Valentine's Day chocolates will fall 3 percent with respect to 2018 to 126 billion yen, which is around 20 percent of the annual sales of the sector.

The decline could also be due to a shift in the perspective of consumers, urged by international companies, which encourage women to buy chocolates out of love and not obligation.

Luxury chocolate maker Godiva, had began this narrative in a campaign last year, when it called for an end to "giri-choco."

However, there is no cause for alarm as yet for Japan's chocolate makers.

Sale of chocolates account for around 16 percent of the Japanese confectionery market, valued at around 3.4 trillion yen, and their production is behind only namagashi, a type of sweet used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

The consumption of chocolate in Japan has increased progressively since 2010, with a record 274,067 tonnes in 2017 (an increase of 23.34 percent in seven years), according to the CCAJ.

This means that the Japanese consume an average of 2.16 kilograms (4.76 pounds) of chocolate per person every year, which is still much less than the 10 kgs that people in Switzerland consume.

Tomohisa Kamei, of the department of communication of Meiji, Japan's biggest chocolate maker, told EFE that chocolate consumption in the country is less than in Europe and the United States, which is why the company believes that there are greater opportunities for expansion in the Asian country.

For many years now, Japanese companies have been promoting the nutritional value of cocoa and the benefits of consuming it.

By Maria Roldan