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
You will be warmly welcomed for sure when you bring this charming, bright coloured paper bag containing Hato (dove) Sable cookies by Toshimaya
– a famous souvenir from Kamakura, near Tokyo.
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:
Sophisticated gusseted package: small cake with sweet chestnut by the confectionary Morihachi
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
Tender romantic packaging! Designed like a Morning Glory flower, containing inside another sealed bag with Mizu-Yokan, a jelly-like sweet. By the confectionary Koujuken
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 stages of unfolding – can be so exciting if done step by step! Small cake with sweet potato by the confectionary Tsuruyahachiman
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.
Delicately torn package – the small cake above, almost unwrapped.
Business Trip Souvenirs
Kaki fruit-shaped package: The structure is adapted by fasteners in the shape of leaves or petals, forming a Persimmon fruit (left) or an Iris flower (right). From the confectionary Seikan’in
Origami sweets! Beautiful! Package of a Mizu-Yokan sweet by Kogetsu
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.
The finally unwrapped sweet. Yes, it contains real gold leaf!
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
are dedicated to providing a mind-boggling array of gift choices. Furoshiki Design Principles: Complex Simpleness
A cute little gift set of five cups of watermelon jelly in a bamboo basket by Seikan’in
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
A simply but quite elegant package of six “Hitokuchi” (bite-size) sweets from Higashiya
Package detail: the embossed Higashiya
logo (left) and the way the ribbon is tied (right).
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
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:
Clever! Loosely wrapped tea package by Nakane-en, a teashop in Lida.
The unwrapping stages of the tea package.
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.
Inside said tea package: Three boxes containing small, bite-sized Arare rice crackers. 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.
A present from the Shiseido Parlour
, unwrapped in six steps: 1. The branded paper bag… 2. …comes with this wrapped box. Look at the diagonal lines of the wrapping paper pattern! 3. The lines result from the item diagonally placed on the sheet. 4. Inside the cardboard-box you find a sealed tray with three little paper cups… 5. …which – SURPRISE! SURPRISE! – offer tiny cheese cakes.
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…