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How Do You Keep Merchandise Moving in Japan? Invent A Holiday 3/8 With AM-Model Husbands, Bjt

March 13, 1991

TOKYO (AP) _ Retailers have long exploited the Japanese penchant for gift-giving with the cunning of pool hustlers eyeing an easy mark. This week, Japanese men are out procuring panties for ″White Day.″

The ostensible reason for the holiday, which falls on Thursday, is to give men a chance to reciprocate for the chocolates and other goodies they received from female co-workers, girlfriends and wives last month on Valentine’s Day.

The real reason for the occasion, just about everyone admits, is that it was shamelessly invented by Japan’s candy industry about 20 years ago to boost sales. Sweets remain the most common White Day gift.

But other promoters have since grabbed their piece of the action.

Hapless men have been crowding department stores to snap up designer scarves, handkerchiefs and the latest rage - women’s silk panties folded delicately into the shape of a rose.

Japanese retailers were also responsible for importing Valentine’s Day from the United States in the late 1950s, but they mistakenly thought gift buying was done only by women. The error proved a boon for retailers, however, who quickly thought up a male equivalent.

Today, nationwide sales of White Day candy alone come to about $370 million, accounting for one-quarter of annual sales, said Mitsuhiko Suzawa of the National Candy Manufacturers Coop.

Wacoal Corp., the leading women’s underwear manufacturer, gave the holiday its intimate look about six years ago. Today, they sell $3.7 million worth of underwear for White Day, including panties that glow in the dark or change pattern under disco lights, said spokeswoman Mihoko Yoshida. Those go for about $10 apiece.

For the truly enamored suitor, there is this top-of-the-line item: a pair of pearl-encrusted silk panties set in a paulownia wood frame. Price: $220.

″It’s pure commercialism,″ said Osamu Sato, a 32-year-old customer poking through Ungaro and Nina Ricci scarves at the elegant Takashimaya department store. ″Everyone’s in on it. The stores sell goods, television stations sell ads, hotels sell rooms and restaurants sell dinners.″

In the third-floor lingerie department, several gray-suited businessmen circled warily around a multi-colored panty display.

″It can’t be helped,″ said one grinning man, who shook his head ″no″ vigorously when asked his name.

Indeed, most male customers admitted with good-natured resignation that they simply can’t ignore White Day. The reason is ″giri,″ the obligation to return favors or gifts. It is a national characteristic retailers are acutely aware of, just as they know the Japanese workplace is a major breeding ground for romance.

White Day, named after the marshmallows and other white candies stores used to sell, is ″based on our idea of good manners,″ said Noboru Gumizaya, spokesman for Fujiya, the Tokyo candymaker that some credit with concocting the holiday.

″If a Japanese receives a gift, he must give one back,″ he said. ″So when candy companies started doing well on White Day, other companies wanted to get in on it,″ he said.

Still, the women’s underwear sections of several Tokyo department stores were strangely uncrowded early this week. Saleswomen said this was typical.

″The men will all be here at the last minute,″ said one. ″They’re all embarrassed to be seen buying these things.″

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