Even if you only stay on a short trip in Japan, you will get in touch with “product poetry”: small texts – almost like poems – written in a ‘foreign’ language and placed on several kinds of Japanese consumer goods. Anything from sandwiches to beer, energy drinks, cookies, cosmetics, stationary, home appliances, T-shirts and others. When we choose to write about “product poetry” respectfully, it is to introduce this detail of Japanese (packaging) design which developed a little life of its own. This article explains: 1. how ‘product poetry’ gives a product an overall foreign, non-Japanese touch; 2. how it creates a mystical fantasy world relating to the product – beyond it’s function (for those who can read it); 3. where the true beauty lies in the arrangement of these few lines of free, playful text.
Written by Bianca Beuttel
Product poetry is most probably an intriguing subject to foreigners in Japan: within the flood of Japanese characters and the lack of their understanding, any word written in alphabetic letters immediately leaps to the eye. On the contrary – these words are originally designed for an audience, which – in most cases – will never seriously read them anyway. The question is – why?
Although we now call it ‘product poetry’ in this article, it is actually something that can be found anywhere – on websites, travel brochures, interior design, restaurant menus…
I imagine the design process to something like this: a young graphic designer gathers a few (mostly English) words in the layout – until the design needs to be finalized, a native English speaker comes around to check – and with a few modifications back and forth, some flowery words relating to the product are set to make you smile and give you an overall ‘warm fuzzy feeling’. The typography of the poems themselves also puts a stress more on ornamentation than on readability: often in small font size, the words are mainly set to balance the layout.
After studying these sentences on the beer label, you are convinced that – whatever your choice will be – this is absolutely the best you can get. However, if you have chosen the one in the middle, you may miss the fact, that you actually only get a beer-like drink, as its malt percentage is reduced to cheat the Japanese tax-system…
These texts neither function as objective product description nor are meant to assist foreigners. Far from that, referring to James Stanlaw term of the Beautiful Human Life, it is a foreign language inspired Japanese created solely for Japanese consumers.
Asking any Japanese person about this product poetry, this quickly reveals that it is just for creating a mood (since nobody really reads it…). The alphabet functions as a kind of decoration to make the products look more western… You would certainly not find foreign poetry on Onigiri (rice balls) – unless they are a new kind of rice balls with Italian tomato and basil taste, maybe.
Now the fascinating question is If nobody really reads it anyway, why bother putting so much effort into a lovely sounding sentence?
Although there might be a spelling mistake here and there, you can tell that every little ‘poem’ is thought about! It is no nonsense! For decoration purpose dummy text would be enough, but these texts are emotionally associated with situations the product may be used in and they tell us pretty much about our expectations and attitudes towards it.
Product poetry can be described as illustrations with words, and thoughts of Japanese traditional poetry forms like ‘haiku’ are unavoidable: just a few words that can unfold a universe in the recipient’s mind.
In contrast to commonly known messages on T-shirts, product poetry focuses less on expressing the attitude of its wearer to the outside. It whispers its message more intimately into the mind of the customer – to stimulate his or her feelings.
Simply the fact that such embroidered words are related to trivial consumer goods makes product poetry worth the considering. Many of the “poems” sound like extended versions of advertising copies. They explain the product philosophy, “invite” to positive feelings or appeal to the customer. This matches well with the routine of Japanese companies to emphasize their tireless efforts to satisfy the customers’ high demands.
When flattery and promises are expressed in more unexpected ways, “product poetry” creates a surprisingly new point of view concerning the product, and delights.
Nevertheless, there are also kinds of “product poetry” that accompany you much longer than those on packages you soon throw away. You can find a lot of “poems” on home appliances like mahoubin (big thermos jugs), light switches, toilet articles, mugs, towels…
But the best chances to find “product poetry” would certainly be on stationery:
Although English is widely used in product poetry as it is the most comprehensible language, crafters like Delfonics or Hightide also employ typography in other foreign tongues like German, French, Italian, etc.
Even if the people don’t get the message, they can probably recognize the language due to their unique letters (like the Umlaut in German ‘ü’, ‘ö’, ‘ä’, the French accents like é, or the Scandinavian ø) and are inspired by a cosmopolitan flair and the appealing aura of those countries.
The seemingly frequent use of German for stationery (often for filing) reveals also a bit of the image this nation has here: by using these items your work might become more ‘well-organized’ and ‘effective’.
Talking about saving time or using time efficiently on a weekly planner…
‘Bleistiftfall’ – a newly created word meaning something like the ‘free fall of a pencil’ – quite poetic for a simple pencil case!
Because of its close connection to commercial purposes, “product poetry” may be blamed to tempt consumption by blank promises. But like literature, “product poetry” can be regarded as fiction as well as it doesn’t have to be necessarily true. It is a wonderland where we can play and explore new experiences – and there are certainly multiple interpretations possible.
The border to irony is often blurred and it can be questioned whether the creators are serious about their message or want to demonstrate the absurdity of consumerism. Thus “product poetry” becomes a subversion inside the system, a criticism encoded in exaggerating pathos and cushioned by the safe distance of a foreign language…
Where as you might still shake your head and not get it, an interesting example is Japanese huge T-shirt hit seller Graniph. With very strong, bold graphics often involving typography, they sell their shirts in high-speed for a very reasonable price – and it seems that their predominant use for text is German. Looking around in the international community in Tokyo, it is also interesting that countless foreigners wear Graniph shirts. Now why is that, I wonder?
Here is my little theory:
Although product poetry was originally designed as a graphic balance and stopgap enhancing the product’s qualities and adding that little extra romantic element for Japanese customers, it has now gone beyond that.
One of the main people working at Graniph’s office in Tokyo is German – so why should there still be so much slightly odd German on the shirts? Or odd English next to it? I believe that the slightly unusual way of writing product poetry has its charm. The fact that it isn’t perfect is just what you need to dream off – thus creating your own story with the bits of text given. Therefore this makes it highly enjoyable for both Japanese and foreigners living in Japan: an ornamental decoration with extra info on the one hand side, and an imperfect utopia for ‘foreign language speakers’ on the other.**
Why don’t you go out? There is a “poetry reading” at almost every corner in Tokyo! Find and enjoy your favorite ones!