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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Ever since Valentine's Day took off in Japan some four decades ago, the holiday has been celebrated with a twist: women buy chocolates and gifts for men, including bosses and colleagues as well as lovers and spouses, instead of the other way round.
These days, a growing number of Japanese women are taking the Cupid out of Valentine's Day altogether by exchanging carefully selected or hand-crafted sweets and gifts with female friends.
"I go to buy good chocolates with my close friends to enjoy together," said 26-year-old Ai Shibata, who works at an advertising company and was buying chocolates for herself and colleagues at a busy subway station in central Tokyo.
"The expensive ones are usually for us to appreciate."
Nearly three out of four women in their teens and 20s plan to give "tomo-choco," or friendship chocolate, to their female friends this Valentine's Day, compared to just over 40 percent giving sweets to men for romantic reasons, according to a survey by confectionary maker Ezaki Glico.
Major department stores have picked up on the trend, holding special Valentine's Day sales with "girls' collections" featuring cute and colorful chocolates, some shaped like flowers or rabbits, to expand the selection of sweets targeted at women wanting to give the confectionaries to other women.
Commentators have floated a plethora of reasons for the trend, including the simple explanation that other women are more likely than men to appreciate the thought and expense that goes into carefully crafted or selected chocolates.
Others say there are deeper sociological factors such as women's declining interest in men as romantic partners due to a perceived lack of masculinity -- the same cause some cite for Japan's rock-bottom birthrate.
"Japanese men are no longer attractive to women," said Tomoko Inukai, a commentator who analyzes urban trends.
Ezaki Glico spokesman Tetsuya Nanga thinks such interpretations are probably going too far.
"Sweets have always been a way to communicate, to set up a mood and enjoy the moment. Valentine's Day has become an event that celebrates that," Nanga said.
"It's not that women are no longer willing to give chocolates to men, but they have expanded the range of people they give to."
Much of the chocolate given in the past was known as "giri-choco," or duty chocolates, which were those presented to male colleagues or bosses.
But while men were expected to return the favor in March on "White Day," women frequently complained that this was not as universal as the presentation of chocolates on Valentine's Day.
Advertising worker Shibata said she had no choice about buying chocolates for her colleagues, but that she planned to give her boyfriend handmade chocolate.
"Handmade means spending less money, which is great, but most of all the amount of feeling involved is more important than the quality and the price."
Editing by Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies