A Rough History of Japanese Advertising (and its relationship with pop culture)

I recently took a course on Soft Power/Pop Culture in Japan, and had to do a research project for my final. I’m really proud of myself for not only the research I did, but also for writing my research paper in Japanese. It’s the most complex piece of Japanese writing I’ve done so far, and I honestly didn’t think I was capable of doing it (writing has always been one of my weakest skills). But I did!

Anyway, the research is about major developments in advertising styles throughout Japanese history, and how those advertising methods directly tie in to pop culture movements. You can read the Japanese version on my portfolio, but I thought it was so interesting that I’d like to discuss it in English as well. This is by no means an in-depth study, but really just a brief overview of a really long time period.

Introduction

In the past few decades, Japanese TV commercials, mascot ads, and other forms of advertising have become well known world-wide. But when did Japanese advertising begin? What factors shaped how ads are produced now? Ads tend to reflect the pop culture and trends of the time, so by studying advertising methods, we can learn more about what appealed to people, and what pop culture looked like throughout history.

Edo Era

Nishiki-e

Japanese advertising history dates back to the Edo period. The first form of advertising I’ll discuss is nishiki-e. Nishiki-e is considered to be Japan’s first form of color printing, although it is frequently confused with being the same thing as ukiyo-e. Although the craftsmanship of both these art forms is considered astonishing in the modern age, during the Edo Era they were very cheap and commonplace – much like a modern magazine. Edo merchants took notice of how popular the prints were among the general public, and began inserting advertisements into the artwork. Ads for kimono stores, face powder, and sake brewers were among the most common. Some of these ads were subtle, like slipping a company logo into the background, à la product placement style, while others featured the products front and center. [1]

For example, this nishiki-e, Enshi Jurokujosen Joriken by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, shows a woman sitting on a sake barrel with the Kenbishi sake brewery logo. The word “Kenbishi” is also shown in the writing above her. Kenbishi still uses the same logo to this day.

Sugoroku

Sugoroku is a simplistic board game that has been popular throughout Japanese history. The boards feature designs based on a theme, so the different styles of boards created is innumerable. It should come as no surprise that this was also used as an opportunity for advertising. This Edo era board was drawn by Utagawa Yoshitsuya and is called Shinpan Gofunai Ryuukou Meibutsu Annai Sugoroku, which roughly translates to “the new guide of trendy local goods in Edo.”[2] Obviously, it includes ads for places selling these trendy local goods, like tea houses, restaurants, and sake breweries. I have highlighted a square that features the logos of both Kenbishi and Toshimaya sake. When reading about sugoroku, I thought that the idea of incorporating ads into games so the players would constantly be looking at them closely resembled modern day mobile games. It’s fascinating to me that advertising techniques haven’t changed that drastically over the years.

Kabuki

Edo’s kabuki actors enjoyed a similar social status and level of fame as today’s popular Hollywood actors. Many nishiki-e were produced featuring the actors and plays, and were collected like movie posters by the public. Also like today’s actors, kabuki actors had commercial deals for them to promote certain products. These promotion could come in the form of having the product featured with the actor in a nishiki-e, a pamphlet circulating with the actor praising the product, or by a literal commercial break mid-play. According to historians, kabuki actors would come back on stage between acts of the play they were performing to advertise to the public[3].

This print by Utagawa Toyokuni, shows kabuki actors holding a sign advertising tooth powder during an intermission[4].

Meiji Era

The Meiji Era was a turning point for Japan. The isolationist policy, Sakoku, was rescinded and after over 200 years, Japan was open to international trade and modernization. Of course, this also meant that new advertising methods developed to appeal to the rapidly changing landscape of Japanese society.

Chindonya

In 1845, a candy seller in Osaka called “Amekatsu” started to advertise his wares with energetic calls, singing, and dramatic performances. He and his students’ performances became hugely popular in Osaka, and started a new advertising style known as chindonya. Chindonya performers are small groups, usually 3-4 people, who dress in brightly colored clothes, play instruments, carry signs, and sing songs or chants about their client’s business or products. The style spread across Japan, but slowly died out in 1905. There was a resurgence of chindonya performers in 1935, but they again disappeared as war dawned over Japan[5]. Now, some families of chindonya performers still carry on the tradition, primarily in Osaka.

Westernization

As Japan reopened to itself to the rest of the world, it also became open to the effects of Westernization. Suddenly, Japanese consumers had the choice between domestic and imported products. As a direct result, it was very much in the interest of Western companies to design advertising to appeal to Japanese audiences. While maintaining Japanese artistic style, new elements were introduced to advertising campaigns – for example, from around 1880 onward, romaji can be seen in advertising posters[6].

Returning to sugoroku briefly; the game still served the same purpose as it did in the Edo Era – an easy way to advertise to the general public. However, new products and companies were being advertised on the boards. If you compare the Edo Era sugoroku board above, and this 1898 board from Murai Bros. & Co., you can clearly see the effect of Westernization on Japan’s advertising landscape.

Taisho Era

During the Taisho Era, advertising began to be seen as an important economic field and went through extensive development. It began to be taken seriously as an art form, a career path, and a necessity for modern marketing. Companies began to invest in their advertising, and establish in-house advertising departments.

Company Branding

Company brand imaging also began to be developed, much of which lasted long throughout the company’s history. For example, popular soft drink Calpis submitted the copyright for their slogan “カルピスは初恋の味” (Calpis is the taste of first love) in 1922[7]. They continued to use the slogan until 2007, and the brand’s packaging designs remain largely similar to the look decided on in the Taisho Era. Other companies made similar efforts to establish a distinctive brand style to characterize further advertisements and other marketing campaigns.

Magazines and Other Media

New media forms also rose in popularity – like newspapers, magazines, and commercial posters. Women’s magazines in particular became extremely popular, and the contents directly reflected trends of the time. As such, many ads were for fashion brands, makeup, and department stores. By looking at the magazine ads, we can see the evolution of the Taisho Era “New Woman.”[8] Because magazines had issues being published continually, historians can clearly track the evolution of social movements, trends, and interest in different kinds of products through the kind of ads published.

Showa Era

The Showa Era is landmarked by periods of war and skyrocketing consumerism – complete opposites in the world of advertising. Japan was involved in two wars during this time: the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. The approaches for advertisements and propaganda during each war was drastically different, which we will examine through posters from the era.

The Second Sino-Japanese War

Because the Second Sino-Japanese War was instigated by, and was largely going well for Japan, wartime posters depicted strong nationalistic themes. Beer and tobacco ads featured planes and silhouettes of soldiers, posters had traditional Japanese imagery like samurai and cherry blossoms, and government agencies like Japan’s Red Cross Society showed workers as proud, confident, and strong[9]. Propaganda and advertising went hand in hand to send the message that the war was going well, and Japanese citizens should be proud to support it.

WWII

The tone of posters during WWII were vastly different than during the Second Sino-Japanese war, especially in the later years. Like many other countries during the war, Japan’s fields and means of food production were bombed, and no imports were coming. Citizens were asked to use every available resource for the effort, and to also undergo extreme rationing. Posters were displayed encouraging citizens to seek other ways to feed themselves, like by planting their own gardens and scavenging. Ads in newspapers were replaced with blocks reading “ぜいたくは敵だ!” meaning “Luxury is the enemy!” This period is known as “advertising’s winter”[10].

Post-War Consumerism

Japan’s production industries had been hyper focused on producing weapons and munitions during WWII. After the war ended, it still left them perfectly poised to start mass producing. And so they did. “Made in Japan” labeled products began being shipped all over the world. Of course, the most well-known Japanese export was their electronics. TVs, radios, stereos, cassette players, and every other modern appliance were flying out of Japan[11]. Companies like Sony rose to become the giants they are today. As a result of their suddenly very successful export industry, America’s efforts to revitalize the Japanese economy, and the end of their extended period of rationing and living on bare necessities, Japanese citizens were extremely excited to start spending on luxuries.

Imports resumed, allowing the public to buy a wide variety of new goods. The advertising industry went from being in the depth of its winter to being in incredible demand. Import companies needed Japanese advertising companies to make relevant ads for their products, and Japanese companies were rapidly expanding and had plenty to invest in advertising[12]. This period came to be called the “Japanese Economic Miracle.”

Present

Japanese advertising has enjoyed popularity across the world, even among those who don’t understand and have no ability to buy the products being advertised. YouTube compilations of “weird Japanese ads” are shared as a funny way to waste some time, and clips or screenshots have been turned into memes. The world is also very familiar with other advertising aspects of Japan, like popular mascots or ad tie-ins with popular anime. In this way, Japanese advertising methods have become more than a way to sell products to the domestic market, but also a form of soft power for the country.

Anime Ads

Anime has become an incredibly profitable industry. It is unsurprising, then, that the medium would also be used for advertising. Anime characters have become promoters, and real life products have appeared in anime settings. Fans of well-known anime are a market that is easy for advertisers to appeal to. Fan consumers are more likely to watch ads if they feature a favorite character, or buy a product if it has themed packaging.

Anime has also been the means to make original ads. McDonald’s, Marugome, NHK, h&s shampoo and many other brands have all created anime commercials. Many of these commercials became series, especially McDonald’s, which shockingly made entire episode-length anime stories about working at McDonald’s stores. The Taisei Corporation, an international construction and civil engineering company, has found immense success in commissioning anime commercials from a well known director. Makoto Shinkai has directed a series of adds for Taisei, all featuring his distinct beautiful and touching art and story-telling style.

So why have these anime ad campaigns been so successfully? Simply put, it’s because people like anime. While anime used to be something enjoyed on the sub-culture level, it is now a mainstream entertainment medium. A survey conducted by Dentsu in 2018 shows that there is interest in anime across a broad range of demographics[12]. As advertising needs to reflect the target society’s current trends and interests, it stands to reason that ads would turn to anime to continue to appeal to their audiences.

Mascots

Mascots have become hugely powerful in Japanese pop culture and media, and are massively profitable if they become popular. The “kawaii culture” of the 70’s led to the birth of Hello Kitty in 1974. Hello Kitty dominates Japan’s advertising landscape, as she is popular and versatile enough to appear in ads for almost any industry. She has gone on to not only be massively successful in advertising for her company, Sanrio – but also for government agencies like JR, Japan National Tourism, and the post office. Her global popularity also led to her being sent to the UN to work as a promoter for the #HelloGlobalGoals project. Using her image makes companies, agencies, or projects appear friendly, current, and approachable. Consumers’ desire to see or buy something Hello Kitty themed can boost any product. Her power of cute, and international kitty-mania, opened the doorway for Japan’s modern mascot culture[13].

Mascots are not only limited to commercial industries. It has become commonplace, or even the standard, for towns, cities, prefectures, government agencies, and projects all to have their own official mascot character. The most prolific of these is Kumamon, the mascot for Kumamoto Prefecture. Kumamon works not only as a tourism ambassador for the prefecture, promoting local goods and sights, but also a driving force as the representative for earthquake recovery efforts in Kumamoto. In 2019 alone, Kumamon related goods raked in 1.58 million yen, around 1.4 billion USD[14].

Other official mascots have also been used to convey information from the government, or promote governmental projects and campaigns. During the pandemic, many posters and ad campaigns were released featuring mascots encouraging the public to maintain social distance, wear masks, and wash their hands. These campaigns, and the mascot industry as a whole, are a clear indicator of government acknowledgement of the power of pop culture, and the importance of utilizing it to appeal to the public[15].

“Weird” Commercials

Japan’s distinctive “weird’ commercial style with its many on screen graphics, silly effects and plot lines, plus upbeat music and dances are well known on the internet. While this method of advertising has found success in the domestic market, it also become an effective form of soft power. When popular commercials spread across the web, foreign consumers, even if they don’t understand Japanese, become familiar with the company or product’s branding and image. They might also unconsciously create an impression of that company, which would carry over when they discuss the commercial with others. This helps spread overall awareness of Japanese products across the world, which can have a direct economical impact.

Japan’s modern commercial style is a direct reflection of societal trends. While advertisers’ would previously turn to well known actors and singers for to feature in commercials (and they still do), social media influencers and YouTubers have appeared with increasing regularity in mainstream television settings, including commercials. For example, popular YouTuber Fuwa-chan has become a regular on several variety TV shows and frequently appears in commercials. Internet trends have also made their way into advertising campaigns. TikTok popularized short dances and sequences that users learn, perform, and share their versions of. It seems that advertising companies have tapped into this trend by adding TikTok-esque dances to their commercials, presumably hoping to gain more shares by entering TikTokker’s social spheres. While the connection to TikTok is conjecture on my part, the theory does seem fairly evident in commercials like SoftBank’s ad for LINEMO.

Conclusion

I think it’s all too easy to brush advertising off as something shallow, focused entirely on making a buck. Through studying advertising throughout Japanese history, I have learned that advertising is truly a direct reflection of a society. We can learn so much about what people were interested in, what their daily lives were like, what kinds of things were important enough to them to spend money on, what events or movements were happening, and how those things change. Pop culture and advertising go hand-in-hand, and looking at history through this lens is something I had never considered before, but has been fascinating to me.

If you are interested in learning more about Japanese advertising from the Edo-Showa eras, I highly recommend visiting the Ad Museum Tokyo’s website to see their excellent work studying ads, and collections of historic ads. My interest in this topic was originally sparked by watching Miko Tsuruga-Tucker from the Ad Museum Tokyo speak about Edo advertising for the Japan House LA, which is free to view on YouTube.

Bibliography

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