When you get home late or are just plain tired, what can you rely on? Ready-to-eat meals and preservatives like cup noodles. As life gets ever faster, so too does food get ever easier — there’s a wealth of tastes to be had just by opening up a sachet or packaging, and heating something up.
But if we’re talking preservatives, there’s one that boasts the longest history of them all: Cans. In Japan canned food goes back 140 years but except for certain perennials like canned tuna, its place is slowly being taken by retort pouches. After the 2011 Tohoku disaster, though, people have started looking again at canned food, which can be preserved for a long time and can offer all manner of tastes.
Before you open up another can of something, here’s an entrée: Canned food packaging design in Japan.
Design with a Sense of the Traditional
Just by virtue of having been around for a while, many cans conjure up a sense of tradition in their design. But perhaps because the makers are hoping to export one day, there’s also a lot of English in the label design, creating a curious hybrid of the Japanese and the western.
Even Japanese people may not be too familiar with this product — it’s fukujinzuke, a type of pickle that goes with curry. It first went on sale in 1913 and the label design does a good job of conveying this. The background is the eponymous Tokyo bridge, Nihonbashi.
Akebono Salmon It is said that canned salmon came about when canned food started to be fully produced in Japan. Akebono Salmon was the first canned salmon, and its design is classic canned food rather than specifically “Japanese”. If you’re wondering why there is “pink” written on the belly of the fish, it’s because it’s a pink salmon.
Labels with Photos
They say that can label design is not something you change a lot. No doubt as a result of using a design that was popular at the time it was first released, canned food seems today somehow to have this nostalgic atmosphere. Especially when the design features photos there is this faded feel, like the images you might have found on the pages of an old recipe book — not so much something that makes you say “Looks delicious!” as one suggesting the food inside has a unique and intriguing taste.
Hagoromo Sea Chicken When the Japanese think of canned food, this is what they think of. The Japanese product name, “sea chicken” (tuna), has permeated into popular culture so much that it’s become a generic term. The name is said to derive from how the mild taste is like chicken breast.
Hamanako Unagi Kabayaki While kabayaki-style grilled unagi (eel) may well be a traditional Japanese food, the design for this can is rather pop. Perhaps that was how people thought kabayaki was like when it first went on sale?
Sunyo White Peaches What’s so good about this photo is how it really shows you what’s inside down to a tee. This is “courteous” design for consumers who won’t be let down by any disparity between the label photo and the actual contents of the can.
SSK White Peaches Peaches aren’t fruit that say “Japan”. But while they might not have a long history in the country, this can nonetheless gives an impression of something tradition, with its washi Japanese paper-style label, an image of a peach flower that looks like cherry blossom or Japanese plum (ume), topped off by the Kanji font. But in spite of the Japanese trimmings, for some reason “White Peaches” has to be written in English in the middle. What’s that all about?!
Sembikiya Fruit Cocktail This can from venerable fruit store Sembikiya has a real Eighties feel.
Aohata Pork and Beans Pork and beans is not a can food that Japanese people know well. We are guessing that “BEANS” is emphasized because there’s more of it in the can than the meat. The design is modern, with photography and clean typography.
Seijo Ishii Sweetcorn With its boast that it’s “made in USA” in large letters and the photo of the corn sprouting in the wild, the design here feels really American.
Design with Illustrations
Can design frequently uses illustrations, though many seem to have been taken from images used in museum displays. Others seem like the kind of illustrations used to demonstrate ingredients in cooking.
Hokkaido Nemuro Boiled Baby Clam When you try to depict something accurately and to just the right proportions, you can at times end up with something slightly grotesque. This can has a western design feel but, perhaps due to how the English lettering is partly hidden behind the picture, it also radiates this rather peculiar, ambiguous aura where you’re not sure what country it comes from.
Seijo Ishii Asparagus White It might well say it’s grown in Hokkaido but in design terms this just shouts “import”. It’s perhaps also connected to how in Japan it’s rare to eat canned vegetables.
Nozaki Corned Beef This classic corned beef product by Nozaki has a great logo in a cursive script. The retro beef illustration hasn’t changed since the cans first went on sale in 1948.
Pankan (Anpan) When it comes to cans, you want something with a gentle taste. Especially if it’s something you will eat in an emergency, that very gentleness will help you relax for a moment. And the name here, Pankan (“bread can”), is just brilliant.
Sometimes words can communicate the feel of a product better than photos or illustrations. And especially with Japanese Kanji characters, the type itself is like a picture.
Benizake Nakabone Mizu-ni (Boiled Sockeye Salmon Bone) This one is REALLY simple, just the name of the product. So simple it doesn’t even feel designed; everything unnecessary has been cut out, which actually makes you trust in the product more.
Tai-miso (Sea Bream in Miso) This is a condiment made from sweet miso with sea bream. Having a condiment in a can is rare in itself, but this can also has vibrant orange coloring, rather solemn lettering, and a cute fish picture on the top — a rather curious mixture of the luxury with the cheap.
Saba miso-ni (Mackerel Boiled in Miso) Here the character for saba (mackerel) is written boldly on the front of the can. The food may well be a humble dish that anyone has eaten at some point, but with the gold coloring it takes on a rather high-class look.
Saba mizuni (Boiled Mackerel) This one is also embossed with a large character for saba. We love the rich elements here: the Kanji, the washi Japanese paper-style label, and the gold, black and red coloring all combine to create a real wa (Japanese) look.
Tsubutsubu Yude Azuki This can of sweet azuki beans just feels so rural and “handmade”. Check out the typography, like it’s been dashed off on the label with a calligraphy brush.
Cans with Characters
It’s no surprise that Japan, which has a well-known mania for mascots, also uses characters in canned food design, although actually there aren’t so many as you might think. Saying that, recently there have been some designs on the shelves featuring famous ones.
hokka Canned Bread You know you’ve got a winner when you use Moomin characters in the design. The copy in the bubble even claims this is “the preservative food of Moominvalley”! This is so cute you will want to use the can as a penholder after you’ve eaten the snacks inside.
Every can we’ve introduced in this round-up can be purchased from a regular supermarket in Japan. So even if the world ends after the zombie invasion or some other calamity, at least we can be sure of a fun and varied diet.