Medicine packaging of today often looks so serious and sterile. Whereas some years ago in Japan, in opening your medicine cabinet, the colourful products would practically jump at you. Medicine packages of the Showa Era (1926-1989) were once bright and friendly, often displaying juvenile illustrations or simple patterns, and basically looked like any household product. PingMag would love to introduce you to some of these sweet designs, which may still be familiar to a few.
Written by Ryoko
With kind help from Retro Museum of Packaging from the Showa Era
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
American William Merrell Vories came to Japan in 1905 as a Christian missionary – and went on to work as an architect. Moreover, he established the Omni Brotherhood, which began importing Mentholatum ointments from America. The brand became very popular in Japan, and the rights to sell Mentholatum were eventually bought out by the Osaka firm, Rohto Pharmaceuticals. Today, the Omi Brotherhood markets a similar product under the name Menturm. At the Retro Museum of Packaging from the Showa Era, we found some very appealing vintage Mentholatum packages from the brand’s heyday.
A Mentholatum package featuring a fair lady…
…and one with black hair in a rose coloured design.
No, it is not a tin of pasta! And although bandages and scissors appear on the label, it is not for bandages either.
The Japanese name of this product, Mensutra is read from right to left, in the old style.
This medicine was called “OZO,” and that name forms a circle on the top of the package.
This package has a red paper belt around it, which is a symbol of gifts in Japan.
This old poster for Menturm has a pharmacist on the left, and a demon-like creature on the right. You better get well…
This green package contained Muhi, an anti-itching ointment. This nice one is still sold today.
This “Bunriko” package has a very traditional looking picture of a kid in a kimono.
The detoxifying medicine “Bunriko” came in a package coloured in subdued tones, with a very traditional picture of a child in a kimono on the top. It was produced by an old pharmacy known for making all sorts of medicines based on home remedies in the city of Shiki, in Saitama Prefecture. The pharmacy has closed, but the building is being preserved as culturally significant.
Oblate is Latin for thin communion wafers used in Catholic Mass. In Japan, the word came to refer to extremely thin strips of starch that medicine would be applied to. The oblate would then be placed on the tongue and quickly dissolve. Oblate are not used so much now, but when, they come in funky new shapes such as triangles. Meaning the round ones we found are kind of nostalgic.
We also found an original package of Powcuro, a brand of baby powder that was used during World War II. In the centre of the lid is a small illustration of a baby’s face done in Japanese style, but it is surrounded by a bright checkered pattern to give it a Western feel.
Today, it’s pretty common in Japan to wear surgical masks in public to deal with pollen allergies, prevent spreading a cold to others, or avoid catching other people’s colds. The masks can be bought in convenience store or train station kiosk, and are thrown away after one or two uses. In the past, however, such masks were made of heavy black velvet and came in very nice boxes. We found some old mask boxes with very stylish illustrations on them:
A “Crown Mask” for gentlemen…
… and a black velvet “Charity Mask” for the ladies.
Chocola BB is a line of vitamin supplements that is still popular in Japan today. Actually, the old packages we found are not all that different from the ones used today, but what really stands out in the old style is the hand-written style font used for the product name, and the simple use of colours that give that vintage feel.
Nice graphics! Chocola BB vitamin pills…
… and the Chocola D vitamin drink.
Salonpas, a hot compress, from Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical Co., is another product that is still sold today. When Salonpas first went on sale in 1934, it was a revolutionary new product. Before that time, people would apply a black salve to a piece of Japanese paper, and apply it directly to the skin, and a lot of the salve would be stuck to the skin afterwards. The packaging designs of today still use a simple white and navy blue colour scheme that can been seen on the old packages.
One of the Seven Japanese Gods of Good Fortune is Hotei, the fat god of abundance and good health. Hotei appears on the package of digestive medicine by Koukandou, a pharmaceutical company with a history dating back the the Edo Period. We also found a medicine with a op-art package from Daiichi Yakuhin.
One might think of digestion when looking at this figure…
Hypnotic! A package with concentric circles.
We found that cold medicines from Omi Seizai came in packages with a variety of designs, all of them with a bold use of colours and layouts.
Adhesive Bandages and Liquid Soap
A while ago, we showed you interesting tape roll designs from the Nichiban company. Now, we found some old packages of adhesive bandages from the same company. Their “Keep” bandages came in boxes with a vibrant three-colour design, and very hip angular fonts. We also came across some liquid soap in a pump bottle in the shape of Sato-chan, the elephant mascot of Sato Pharmaceuticals, which is still a beloved character.
A colourful and angular package of bandages.
This cute elephant contains liquid soap.
Finally, have a look at a pharmaceutical company’s vintage sign:
Many thanks to the Retro Museum of Packaging from the Showa Era for their kind help!