JAPAN - In this new third-part series, Stuart Hoggard takes us through the evolution of packaging in Japan, and the drivers impacting on the industry today.
To the Western eye, Japanese packaging is ornate and thought of as wickedly expensive. However, to understand the key drivers of packaging technology development in Japan, it is important to understand the evolution of the Japanese package.
Originally, Japanese packaging performed a completely different function than in the West, where it first emerged as product protection and preservation: think 18th century barrels of salted meat on the long haul round the Cape to far flung colonies, or wooden clipper-ships returning from India laden with wooden tea-chests lined with tin foil (the first standard size transport container). As Britain became a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, the retail trade began to require that the package also perform a promotional function, and technology evolved from there to where we are today.
Japanese packaging however has a completely different base starting point: from 1603 until 1868 Japan was a feudal society - the Edo era, ruled by a class system that side-lined the Emperor and placed the Shogun and his vassals at the centre of power. Industrialisation didn’t begin in Japan until the late 19th century, and with no far-flung colonies, Japan had no real need for transport containers.
The two hundred-year long Edo period is fondly looked back on as the ‘golden age’ - an era of samurai adhering to a moral code ‘the way of the warrior’, faithful to their warlord; the Japanese equivalent of Robin Hood, William Tell or Zorro, the era is heavily romanticised in cinema, TV drama and manga comics today.
And rightly so, most of today’s Japanese arts and culture - the tea ceremony, flower arranging, art, poetry, as well as jujitsu, kendo and the marshal arts – emerged in the Edo era.
But in any highly structured feudal society ‘gift giving’ is embedded deep; today we might call it institutionalised corruption as those of lower rank seek favour from their betters or in reverse as those above seek the support of their serfs and retainers by spreading largesse.
And herein lies the problem: the lower ranks in 17th Century Japan were grindingly poor, and their ability to present impressive gifts limited. Over time the gift itself became less important than the elaborate wrapping and presentation that contained whatever humble present it contained.
Furoshiki, the tradition of wrapping, survives today as an art-form just as complex as calligraphy, flower arranging or the tea ceremony.
In a Furoshiki demonstration at the recent Tokyo Pack 2014, ladies from the equivalent of the Women’s’ Institute showed how squares of printed cloth, often cut from an old kimono, could be folded, corners tied in complex knots to wrap the shape of whatever product is to be given: an apple, a book, a sake bottle – or two. Occasionally the wrapping could form a shape recognisable as a bunny or some other cute character.
It was the skill, and care, with which the gift is wrapped that became the focus, rather than the gift itself, – quite literally it was the thought that counted, as gift giving became ritualised the masses could ‘delight’ their superiors with the care that went into the packaging of whatever humble gift they had to give.
In Furoshiki the objective is to ‘delight’, and there lies the base-line key word for modern packaging design in Japan: the object is to ‘delight’ the consumer.
Not just with graphics (though they do play an important role), but the aim is to deliver a total packaging experience: a clever self-spouting closure that eliminates the drip in a detergent pouch, a valve in a coffee pack that permits the aroma to be smelled in-store, an odour absorbent film for take-away meals to ensure that your carry-out curry doesn’t leave a smell in your apartment lift.
It isn’t a word that would necessarily appear in the Western packaging designer’s lexicon, but all contemporary packaging design in Japan must ‘delight’.
Extracted from the 280-page heavily illustrated market analysis report: Zen & the Technology of Packaging Design in Japan.
Available from PackWebasia.com on 28 February @ US$5595 – pre-order now to get a 20% discount and pay just US$476!
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