It’s a bit of an ambiguous subject in Japan: On the one hand, the country is adored for its sophisticated and highly crafted packaging design. On the other, these many excess layers account for an enormous waste of material resources. For now, let’s indulge in its beauty: In an ongoing series, PingMag deals with the functions and meanings of commercial product packaging in Japan (and we will show you lots of beautiful images, of course, as we did before extensively). First, let’s take a look at intriguingly fancy gift packaging.
Written and photographed by Bianca Beuttel
The Act Of Unwrapping
The illustration of this cute bird won’t disappoint you: Inside there are five dove-shaped Hato Sable cookies which only desire to fly straight into your mouth… Each of those biscuits is sealed in a standardised bag package as an efficient way for food wrapping: Easily handled by packaging machines and perfect to keep the products’ aroma and taste as well as protecting them from germs, smell or humidity – nothing special in this common industrial technology. However, Japanese packaging designers have invented various modifications for you to not recognise the bag package as such anymore. The results are much more attractive than a plastic sachet:
This first simple example explains the principle very well: The material used for the gusseted bag package is longer than average in order to fold the ends up to the back of the package and fix them there. What a warm handcrafted atmosphere! Additionally this is enhanced by the inwrought foil with fibres of washi, Japanese paper.
Imitating Nature’s Beauty
We don’t want to generalise, but Japanese tend to feel much delighted by nature’s beauty – and Japanese confectionary manufacturers keep on to this by providing sweets that allude to the seasons in outer appearance as well as in taste. For example, to celebrate the Morning Glory, a characteristic flower for July, the bag package’s foil is printed with matte and glossy paints in different colours and the unsealed end, tied with a leaf decorated fastener, unfurls into a flower.
The structure shown above is used quite often: The amply longer end of the bag is folded by placing a fastener between the layers. When tying the fastener towards the back, the shape of the whole package changes.
Business Trip Souvenirs
Actually, this Iris-shaped package depicted above is not a standardised bag. Its structure is of a frequent type similarly to the one before. When unfolded, the emerging pattern resembles traditional Origami techniques. Like with origami paper folding, the “bag” of the Mizu-Yokan sweet is folded from a square piece of foil.
These little sweets above are just big enough for two yummy bites. Usually, they are placed in a nice box as a gift set. As is true outside of Japan, exchanging gifts maintains relationships and expresses courtesy – but in Japan people are especially well known for the value they assign to gifts: souvenirs from a journey or business trip, small presents to show appreciation for an invitation, the traditional gift-giving seasons o-chugen at midyear and o-seibo at the end of the year.
To assist in finding the appropriate present that conforms to etiquette and expectations, department stores, manufactures and souvenir shops provide a countless variety of gift sets. And since Japanese are very curious about food, sweets, and regional specialities are a pretty popular choice. Huge sections in the ‘depachika’ – vast food markets in the basements of big department stores like Tokyu, Isetan or Matsuya are dedicated to providing a mind-boggling array of gift choices.
Furoshiki Design Principles: Complex Simpleness
The gift set above is suggested for o-chugen – and simply perfect for this hot and sweaty period! When untying the cloth in this nice watermelon peel design, bright red colours appear. This is so mouth-watering! But let’s have a closer look at the wrapping cloth: It is done in Furoshiki manner, the traditional Japanese wrapping technique. This simple square piece of cloth offers the flexibility to wrap and carry items adapted to their size and shape. So clever! More examples here…
GK Design founder Kenji Ekuan and author of the acclaimed The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox compendium has coined the term furoshikibility to explain a Japanese design principle: Inventing various modifications of a simple tool or technique in order to adapt it for as many different forms of usage as possible – complexity created by simplicity or ‘complex simpleness.’
An Overall Concept
So, how about the modified bag packages shown above? Simplicity doesn’t have to be that obvious: Though a Furoshiki can have a simple shape, its design can be totally gorgeous – as we showed earlier in our Furoshiki Redesign Report.
Of course, this applies vice versa as well: Tokyo-based confectionary Higashiya provides sweets in a modern form, artfully designed – from recipes, to packaging to shop interior – by SIMPLICITY. Look closer on the picture above and you will sense a certain simplicity. The package’s muted colour is very decent and so is the subtly embossed logo. See its complexity: The unique way the ribbon is loosely tied or the surprising discovery of the colourful sweets inside as they appear even brighter in contrast to the muted colour of the box. Take the mouth-watering recipe of these delicacies: “Peach compote made with brown sugar spirits wrapped in vanilla flavoured white bean paste.” That motif is carried over to their shop interior in Nakameguro on a patterned wall. The white, inner trays of the packages are stored there and with every purchase the configuration changes. Get an idea of this sophisticated decor concept here.
To many Japanese it seems that Western packaging often appears ‘locked’, as if the contents couldn’t escape. In contrast, Japanese packages are frequently described as ‘animated’ or ‘alive’, with a ‘spirit’ inside. So, how to let the contents get out freely and create a dynamic:
The envelope of the tea above is folded from a rectangular sheet, but the overlapping parts are placed asymmetrically on the top side of the envelope and both parts are differently designed: On the left a small stripe of green colour, on the right a diagonal pattern with the label of the shop. Again, complexity is achieved in a simple way. Apart from that, see the tension created by asymmetry, diagonal lines and heterogeneous elements!
I suppose this dynamic effect causes the impression of liveliness: Other than symmetry where the eyes rest on a stable focus, diagonal lines and asymmetry keep the eyes moving. With this tea package pictured above, its asymmetrical cut guides your eyes along to the side and to the closure. And because of the cuttings you’ve already got a glimpse of the next layer. It asks for being unwrapped.
Unwrapping Pleasures In The Empire Of Sings
No doubt, Japanese packaging celebrates the process of opening. The transition from one mood into another – from attraction to anticipation to surprise to delight – is handled with attentive care.
In his essay “Empire of Signs,” French philosopher Roland Barthes analyses this kind of procedure: “By its very perfection, the envelope, often repeated – you can be unwrapping a package forever – postpones the discovery of the object it contains. The object itself is often insignificant, for it is precisely a specialty of the Japanese package that the triviality of the thing is disproportionate to the luxury of the envelope. […] It is as if, then, the box were the object of the gift, not what it contains”. With all the effort spent to make the unwrapping a pleasurable experience, you don’t just give some present: The whole act is part of the treat itself.
But those very moments of transition are not limited to traditional or luxurious items. Equally, you can discover it in, say, chocolates from the conbini around the corner.
Opening detail of a Meiji’s Fran package – chocolate coated biscuit sticks.
Opening instructions are often understood just as functional detail of a package. But taking the ‘joy of unwrapping’ in consideration, a detail like the perforation above can gain an additional quality. Even if you suffer from ‘chocolate craving’ and you can’t wait to rip the package open, the very act of ripping comes with suspense and excitement and a stimulation for your well-conditioned senses: A peculiar sound and rhythm of the torn open perforation which, if you often eat chocolate out of these perforated packages, will appeal to you as sweet as the chocolate content itself. You are a bit like Pavlov’s dog, only with chocolate.
And – that’s exactly why the Japanese chocolate manufacturer Meiji has chosen this opening moment as his corporate identity’s visual. You will notice it at the beginning of almost every one of Meiji’s commercials. Now, open this link and you will know…
We are sure you are now so enchanted of these lacy wrappings as we are. Wait for our next part of the Japanese packaging design series…