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Package Design in Japan

Today's newsletter will be a bit different. It's about another passion of mine: 'design.' I'm absolutely enamored with minimalist and cool designs, and Japan excels in this area. From eye-catching train advertisements to the cozy interiors of cafes and tea houses, innovative food packaging, delightful sweets shops, distinctive logos, and memorable taglines, Japanese design showcases a truly unique aesthetic appeal. I'm particularly fascinated by their playful use of font design and colors. Their designs are beautifully blended with tradition, often featuring innovative twists.

This style, often perceived as minimalist, has garnered global admiration for its simplicity and meticulous attention to detail. Among its many admirers was Steve Jobs, whose appreciation for Japanese design and craftsmanship went beyond personal preference, significantly influencing his professional pursuits.

Steve Jobs' appreciation for Japanese art and design was deeply integrated into his work and personal style. For example, the art of Goyo Hashiguchi, particularly his 1920 piece "Woman Combing Hair," in Japanese (橋口 五葉) was notably used in the marketing of Apple's first Macintosh, infusing the product with a sense of ‘human elegance’. Not only that but, Jobs' fashion choices were also influenced by Japanese design. Inspired by the uniforms at a Sony factory, created by renowned fashion designer Issey Miyake, Jobs adopted a personal uniform comprising Levi’s jeans and custom Miyake turtlenecks. Walter Isaacson, his biographer, noted that Jobs owned hundreds of these turtlenecks, a style reminiscent of the traditional attire of Japanese monks.

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Driven by my curiosity, I sought to understand the unique aspects of Japanese design and packaging, and how they differ from those in other parts of the world. This article will delve into two case studies focusing on Japanese confectionery companies. Additionally, it will explore various elements commonly found in Japanese design. The insights and information presented here are primarily drawn from the book: Package Design In Japan: A Comparison with Package Design in Europe.

Intro on Packaging Design

Throughout human history, packaging has primarily served the purpose of carrying and preserving items. In modern times, packaging has evolved to fulfill two main functions: firstly, as an eloquent expression of thought, and secondly, as a means of providing accurate information about the product. Japan, along with other countries, has contributed to a rich heritage of design over the years. Interestingly, many of these designs have stood the test of time, maintaining their original appeal through generations.

From an industrial perspective, there is no fundamental difference between Japanese packaging and that of the rest of the world. Before exploring this further, let's consider the various design aspects of packaging:

  1. Sign - In the old times, Europeans used to wax the stamp on their letter, however in Japan they used normal signature of their kanji names. In fact, the introduction of a sign system revolutionized the postal system

  2. Symbolism - While signs and symbols might seem similar, they are different. Symbols convey deeper meanings beyond the package's contents. For instance, envelopes used for monetary gifts at weddings or funerals symbolize congratulations or condolences, indicating that the money is a token of sentiment.

  3. Distinction - This involves separating, collecting, and assembling parts and wholes.

  4. Preservation - An example is the use of cans to protect and extend the shelf life of food. Techniques like exposing potatoes to radioactive waves or using salt or sugar for preservation are common.

  5. Protection - This refers to safeguarding the external qualities and shape of the item, as seen in egg packaging and glass containers.

  6. Transportation - Modern packaging laws have been influenced by logistics strategies for transporting military equipment developed during World War II. This involves studying the most efficient methods of transporting items in perfect condition.

  7. Ease of Handling - An example of this is the shift from cube sugars to those packaged in plastic bags.

Normally, many people ask if the package design shares similarities from other countries then why it looks different?

The writer Shinya Izumi on the book ‘Package Design in Japan’ says: The distinct impressions we get from Japanese packaging might stem from its Informative Function. Basically, ‘Informative Function’ means: the use of communication for imparting facts or knowledge.(Reference: Oxford Reference).

In Japan, the concept of packaging leans more towards 'wrapping,' as opposed to the European notion of confining or sealing. This difference could also be attributed to Japan's climate and geography. Japan's rich and abundant soil meant that traditionally, there wasn't a pressing need to preserve food for long periods. The availability of fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, and rice throughout the year made nature a kind of 'seventh preserver.' Since rice was also easy to store, the focus in Japan was more on wrapping items beautifully rather than packaging them for longevity. This approach reflects a broader cultural context where the rights of individual property ownership and the emphasis on the individual are not as pronounced as they are in the West. In Japan, society has historically ensured that every person has access to sufficient food, diminishing the individual's struggle for survival.

Moreover, this perspective influences social interactions, particularly the custom of giving and receiving gifts, for which Japan is globally renowned. The act of giving, especially through well-wrapped presents like the 'noshi-bukuro' (a type of ceremonial envelope) and 'ohineri' (twisted paper wrappings), is a significant cultural practice.



These forms of wrapping are not just about aesthetics; they symbolically remove any impurity and utilitarian value from the contents and amplify the giver's good intentions. In this context, the gift or presentation is less about a balance of interests, as it might be in Europe, and more an expression of goodwill, hoping to sustain and honor the relationship. In summary, Japanese packaging, or more accurately 'wrapping,' is deeply interwoven with cultural values and societal norms, emphasizing aesthetics, symbolism, and the maintenance of social bonds, rather than just the practical aspects of preservation and protection.

Other examples that highlight cultural differences in packaging include the European tradition of sealing letters with wax, whereas in Japan, people simply use their signatures, often made with a brush(*this was done in the past).

According to Shinya Izumi on ‘The packages, east and west- wrapping and confining’, this difference may stem from cultural practices and dietary habits, particularly the reliance on meat and livestock farming in Europe. The survival of European civilization often depended on the art of preserving and cooking meat, using techniques like spicing, drying, and smoking. This is reflected in idiomatic expressions: in Japan, people say "cut with your knife," while Europeans say "to cook with heat." These phrases underline the different approaches and philosophies towards food and packaging in the respective cultures.

Case Studies

The following case studies, sourced from the same book, have been elaborated upon to provide deeper insights. The first case study emphasizes the significance of product naming in the context of brand and product design. It illustrates how the choice of a name can impact the perception and success of a product. The second case study focuses on a company's strategic approach to designing its logo, including the selection of color and font. This case highlights the importance of visual elements in branding and how they contribute to the overall identity and recognition of a brand.

1. Meiji

In Japan, peanuts in their shells are known as "Nanking mame," while shelled peanuts are called "pinatsu." Interestingly, in certain contexts, a single peanut symbolizes one million yen. Naming a new product can be a challenging task. An ideal name should effectively convey the product's image, be melodious, contain around 4 to 5 letters, be memorable, and strongly appeal to consumers. Using a brand name led by its contents is almost impossible, assuming such a name can be created. It's also a mistake to use a name already registered by someone else. While it's legally possible to buy a registered name for a large sum, it's unlikely that the owner of a successful brand name would want to sell it. Additionally, the use of European and American place names, once a convenient workaround, is now prohibited due to an agreement with the EEC.

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Under these constraints, changing the naming concept becomes essential. For instance, in the "Imitation" series, the first product was a chocolate candy resembling a peanut. Although confident in its taste and design, they struggled with naming it. With the help of Koichi Tsuchiya, a copywriter known for his skill with palindromes and unconventional phrases. He cleverly named it "It's not a 'Nanking mame' (peanut), it's a Meiji 'mane' (Mane means imitation in Japanese)," which was a stroke of genius. Reference: Its not a “Nanking mame”, its a Meiji “mane” by Kouichi Yamamoto

2. Glico

The name "Glico" often evokes the image of a bright red box adorned with a distinctive running mark, symbolizing the energy to run 300 meters from just one piece of candy. This packaging, complete with a small toy box atop, has become iconic.

Glico, founded by Riichi Ezaki, made a bold move in the confectionery industry when it introduced Japan's first nutrition candy in 1922. At that time, the caramel industry predominantly used yellow packaging, following the lead of Morinaga, a major player in the market. Glico's decision to use a red package was groundbreaking and had its own story.

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  1. Why Red for Glico's Box?
    In a typical candy shop, where goods are densely packed into a small space, packaging often fails to catch the customer's eye. Recognizing this, and aiming to differentiate from the yellow packages commonly used by competitors, Ezaki decided on red for Glico's packaging. He sought a color that would not only stand out but also stimulate appetite and grab attention. The choice of red was so distinctive that it initially created a somewhat garish effect, yet it unmistakably set Glico apart from its competitors.

  2. The Origin of the Glico Mark:
    The iconic running mark of Glico has its own interesting backstory. While in his native province of Saga, Ezaki often visited the Yasho shrine to contemplate marks and slogans. One day, witnessing children racing and the victorious child's triumphant pose at the finish line, Ezaki was struck with inspiration. He realized that this pose represented health and vitality, making it an ideal symbol for Japan's first nutrition candy. Prior to this, Ezaki had considered various marks, including an elephant, penguin, dove, flower, and others. However, after conducting popularity and recollection surveys, the running mark emerged as the most popular choice.

Over the years, Glico's packaging and the running mark have undergone several transformations to reach their current form. The figure in the running mark itself has been subtly modified over time, reflecting Glico's evolving brand identity and commitment to standing out in a crowded market. Reference: About package of caramels by Hiroyasu Nunokawa.

Japanese Design Elements

Another graphic designer writes: the most popular color used is the color "white" in a way is a pivotal element here. In Japan, white is often associated with purity. However, this perspective contrasts starkly with traditional Chinese culture, where white can symbolize more somber themes like funerals and sadness. These differing cultural interpretations of color are deeply rooted in each region's history and customs.

Throughout history, humans have always been shaped by the geography and climate of their surroundings. This natural adaptation extends to the development of distinct sensibilities and cultures, influenced by everything from seasonal changes to the angle of sunlight in their specific regions.

Lastly, Japanese design is characterized by a variety of unique features that distinguish it from other design traditions worldwide:

1. Playful and Quirky Elements:Japanese design often includes fun and quirky elements, such as the incorporation of poop-themed products in their merchandise. This level of playfulness is rare in other design cultures.

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2. Circles and Rounded Motifs: Rounded shapes are a recurring theme in Japanese design, as epitomized by the national flag. Circles are seen as symbols of harmony and balance in Japanese culture, and this is reflected in their design choices.

3. Kawaii Culture: Contrasting with the Western preference for smart, sophisticated design, Japan is known for its 'kawaii' culture. This concept of cuteness pervades various aspects of design, from animation and advertising to branding. Japanese designers often employ cuteness and playfulness to create distinct and memorable works

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4. Use of Gradations: Gradations are a significant aspect of Japanese design, providing a sense of depth and vitality. The subtle blending of colors, often warm and delicate, adds a dynamic and lively quality to the background of designs.

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5. Brushstrokes and Calligraphy: Brushstrokes, deeply connected to the traditional art of calligraphy or 'shodo,' are prevalent in Japanese graphic design. These strokes can range from crisp and clean to blurred and flowing, each adding its unique charm and reflecting the essence of calligraphy, where lines seamlessly flow into one another.

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6. Vibrant and Rich Colors: Japanese design is notable for its use of vibrant and rich colors. The impact of color is a significant element, evident in the colorful streets of areas like Harajuku and Shibuya. If you search on Google, Japanese design the below examples will show; white, read and black are superior to other colors.

These characteristics collectively contribute to the distinctiveness of Japanese design, making it stand out in the global design landscape.

Finally, to close it in my opinion the great example which represent a great designing theme can be found in the promotional video for Tokyo, titled "Old Meets New." This video is a testament to Tokyo's ability to harmonize its rich heritage with modern progress. The video beautifully captures this essence, showcasing iconic landmarks like the Tokyo Tower and the Skytree, symbolizing the city's architectural evolution. It also compares old traditions like sleeping on tatami mats on the floor and practicing Kendo (a type of martial arts) with modern activities like staying in hotels and playing video games. This integration of the old and the new in the video reflects a city that respects its past while enthusiastically embracing the future.

For your curiosity, the Japan Package Design Awards for the 2023 and 2021 are below:

Reference used for this article:

Design Blog

Book: Package Design In Japan: A Comparison with Package Design in Europe

Japan Package Design Association

The secret passion of Steve Jobs



Tokyo Old Meets New

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