A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of vising a country that had always been on my wish list.
As a nation, Japan is both strangely alien and yet reassuringly familiar. Who would have thought that the Japanese love Fred Perry polo shirts as much as we do? Or that Kit Kats were so popular that one flavour just isn’t enough – green tea, sweet potato, wasabi…anyone?
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Japanese culture is their advertising. For a country of people so humble and polite, sometimes the sheer scale and boldness of their advertising seems contradictory to the values of their culture.
One thing I noticed, is that in Japan, people tend to keep themselves to themselves. In the 14 days that I was there, I never witnessed one argument, falling out or disagreement between Japanese people.
And so I find it fascinating that Japanese advertising is so attention-grabbing.
Shibuya crossroads, Tokyo
Japan is the third largest consumerist country in the world, with US $2,999,598 spent per year on consumer goods. And with an average yearly spend of US $319 per person; it has the 10th highest advertising spend per person worldwide.
1. Bigger, Brighter and Bolder Equals Better
When it comes to outdoor billboard advertising (in Tokyo in particular), anything less than 10 metres high just flies under your radar. Only the biggest, brightest, boldest ads get noticed in a city chock-full of colours.
Japan is known for its J-Pop culture: 6o’s inspired guitar music usually played by teenagers. In Tokyo, I noticed that the retro aesthetic of J-Pop culture frequently spills over into advertising.
Once you start looking for it, you see sugar-coated bubblegum-style ads on everything from billboards, to fans, tissues and drinks cans.
The J-Pop aesthetic is really ingrained in Japanese culture and its advertising.
An advertising opportunity is never missed in Japan
Speaking of J-Pop, when was the last time you seen an album being promoted around a city on a truck? In Japan, the latest J-Pop albums are played to the public from speakers attached to moving trucks.
One Direction take note.
A novel way to promote a new album in Tokyo
2. Advertising is Everywhere
Japan is an island nation with 80% of its country covered in forests and mountains, so when there are 127 million people all looking for somewhere to live, you can imagine how space as at a premium in cities (in suburban areas of Tokyo, housing developers literally build on top of existing properties…and I’m talking flats).
The same struggle for space also applies to advertising.
Whether you’re standing at the Shibuya crossroads, travelling on the Shinkansen or using a public restroom, there’s no escaping the messages of Japanese advertising.
Every inch of free wall space is used to advertise something.
Zen minimalism doesn’t apply to Japanese advertising in Shibuya
A homemade advert selling DVDs in Kyoto
3. Informational Advertising is Favoured over Conceptual Advertising
You know the #likeagirl adverts produced by the Leo Burnett agency for Always? The ones based on the concept that the phrase ‘like a girl’, traditionally has negative connotations?
Well, you’re unlikely to find this type of conceptual advertising in Japan.
I found that Japanese advertising is far more focused on providing clear explanations of how products work, a bit like the approach used to sell goods on the Shopping Channel in the UK.
This got me thinking about why Japanese advertising is so informational.
After a bit of research, I read that in Japanese society, education is held in the highest regard.
According to a report published back in 1996, Japanese students spend 240 days a year at school, which is 60 days more than U.S students and from what I seen on my trip, it looks like school days are just as long today.
I frequently saw groups of sleeping schoolchildren travelling home on buses at 8pm and I’ve since read that Japanese authorities are considering bringing back the six day school week, which was originally phased out in Japan in 2002.
With a lot of emphasis on skills-based education in subjects like Maths and Science, creative thinking subjects don’t seem to be as popular among Japanese youth.
Could this be why conceptual advertising doesn’t connect with the Japanese public in the same way that it does in the UK or the US?
4. Japanese Advertising Embraces (The Most Bizarre) Humour
Not that I had much time to watch TV on my trip, but when I did, one observation I made was that the Japanese have a really wacky sense of humour.
Some of their TV adverts were pretty strange (at least to me) but made for compulsive viewing.
Of course, not being able to speak Japanese didn’t help with my understanding of what was going on in the ads, but in some cases, I really didn’t have a clue what the idea behind the advert was and what the ad was actually selling.
One TV advert I kept seeing was Toyota’s ‘Jungle Wakudoki’ ad. In the advert, a car-load of dancing Japanese businessmen stop off for a toilet break in the jungle, only to be confronted by the Cadbury gorilla (possibly).
Inevitably the businessmen and the gorilla get on like a house on fire and end up creating a dance routine with a host of other jungle friends.
Editor’s note: After further research, I’ve discovered that this ad has created a sort of ‘Gangnam Style’ craze in Japan, with wakudoki dance contests being held in public. And the businessmen in the ad are actually a techno-pop group call World Order.
Oh, and waku-doki in Japanese means ‘the anticipation of an adrenalin rush’.
5. Celebrity Endorsement is in High Demand
As in the UK and the US., Japanese advertising frequently uses celebrities to sell products. One Japanese celebrity that I recognised in an ad was Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori – advertising mattresses in a department store:
Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori advertising mattresses in Lumine 2 shopping centre, Tokyo
And it isn’t just Japanese celebrities who endorse products in Japan. Check out this recent Jim Beam advert featuring Leonardo DiCaprio:
And then there’s Miranda Kerr, who advertises a whole host of products from iced tea to laundry detergent.
And just when you thought the wakudoki dancing gorilla was strange, you see Tommy Lee Jones with a monobrow advertising a Japanese mobile phone company alongside a talking dog:
6. Anime Can be Used to Sell Practically Anything
Anime is the abbreviated term for ‘animation’ in Japanese, which refers to hand-drawn or computer animation. There’s a huge market for anime in Japan and it’s used to sell everything from mobile phones to train tickets.
Anime advert at Ginza subway station, Tokyo
I was also curious to find out why anime features so heavily in Japanese advertising, so I did a little research.
One possible explanation could be that in Shintoism (Japanese religion) there are strong references to the concept of animism. ‘Animism’ is the worldview that non-living things possess a soul and are therefore a very important part of life.
Some say that Japan’s connection with animism is the reason that anime and fictional characters are so popular.
I certainly came across a lot of ‘character goods’ like Hello Kitty, which are used to advertise an abundance of different products in Japan.
Anime informational advert in Shinjuku Station, Tokyo
Moving away from advertising for a second, what stood out for me the most on my trip was how accommodating and polite Japanese people are. Whenever we asked someone for directions (which was practically every two minutes), people really went out of their way to help.
The customer service in bars and restaurants was outstanding and Tokyo felt like the safest city I’ve ever visited.
Little kids were fascinated with our blond(ish) hair and on several occasions we were given chocolates and umbrellas by people as ‘presents’ for no other reason than the fact (I assume) that we stood out like a sore thumb.
However, despite the impression that this post gives, I didn’t just spend all my time taking photos of adverts and contemplating their meanings.
We did actually venture further afield and visited lots of different places around Kyoto. We struggled to climb Mount Inari (but made it to the top) and we visited lots of Zen gardens and temples.
I’d highly recommend Japan to anyone interested in visiting.
The experience is both surreal and wonderful.