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'Japan-ness' to the Fore as Gift Industry Gears Up to Olympic Destiny

With still five years to go, the Japanese gift industry is already anticipating a 2020 windfall from its Olympic year, with many exhibitors at the 79th Tokyo International Gift Show keen to capitalise on the country's undoubted cultural appeal.

Photo: Big in Japan: Cultural paper products.
Big in Japan: Cultural paper products.
Photo: Big in Japan: Cultural paper products.
Big in Japan: Cultural paper products.

This year's Tokyo International Gift Show (TIGS) – the 79th – saw many of the country's businesses already adjusting to life under the new consumption tax, while also having a keen eye on the likely opportunities stemming from the 2020 Olympics, which Japan, of course is hosting. Although the Games are still five years distant, many companies were seeking to capitalise on "host nation preference" by exhibiting goods that embodied a distinctly Japanese feel. As part of this move, the use of natural materials – especially fine papers – was somewhat ubiquitous.

Another popular material was silicone, which was present in a number of often surprising guises, including – tea mongs/infusers, pencil cases, pens, spoons and smartphone cases. Silicon lends itself well to basic, vivid colours and was thus ideally suited to the current vogue for simple shapes and powerful, optimistic colours, a style also reflected in bag designs.

Other important trends were the rise of DIY and the gradual dissipation of the 'Korea boom' of a few years back. The latter disengagement was, of course, related to the recent diplomatic disagreements between the two countries, a fact that has inevitably stoked mutually negative perceptions.

While there were many specific products of particular interest on show, many of these actually typified a wider trend. Several notably innovative travel products were a case in point. Yoshimaru, an Osaka-based luggage maker, attracted considerable interest with its display of suitcases and travel bags, all adorned with attractive flashing LED lighting, with the company said to be mainly interested in OEM deals. Another exhibitor had on offer waterproof suitcase covers with Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print designs, retailing for US$33 each. According to both exhibitors, they expect the Olympics to not only increase the number of foreign visitors to Japan, but also the number of Japanese going overseas.

This reveals one of the key points about the Olympics – its two-way effect. The inevitable outside interest in Japan is seen as stimulating Japanese pride and awareness, while also prompting a greater openness to the wider world. As is already being witnessed with regard to next year's Rio Olympics, it's not just about boosting the economy through increasing the number of foreign visitors. There is also a galvanizing effect on the host nation, something that has the promise, at least, of a number of distinct economic benefits.

While the number of tourists coming to Japan and buying souvenirs in 2020 will be somewhat limited, being the centre of global attention is already starting to have a positive effect on how Japanese people and companies see themselves. In preparation for being in the world's spotlight in five years' time, they are starting to take a renewed interest in their own culture and style.

The organisers of the Gift Show were clearly aware of this, looking to exploit it via several pavilions that focussed on art-themed items, traditional arts or local produce. A themed display in the East Hall entrance atrium featured merchandise selected by exhibitors that "overseas tourists in Japan buy on impulse". Elsewhere, the "Select in Gift Show" pavilion was home to the booths of around 100 smaller companies, many of which were presenting items with a distinct Japanese stylistic or craft input. Another area was dedicated to producers from the Fukui prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast and featured craftsmen at work on a number of characteristic high-end luxury goods, including lacquered bowls and wooden utensils.

Many of the more mainstream companies were also moving in this direction. A good example was the Nol Corporation, a Tokyo-based fragrance distributor. The company distributes a range of fragrances and bath goods, mainly imported from Europe and the US, but its stand was dominated by a new brand of air freshener – Orizuru. Launching in spring this year, it sells for around US$7.00 per unit and takes its name from a stylised origami crane, with the same motif used as its delivery mechanism.

Photo: Smartphone, simple speaker.
Smartphone, simple speaker.
Photo: Smartphone, simple speaker.
Smartphone, simple speaker.
Photo: A Japanese case study.
A Japanese case study.
Photo: A Japanese case study.
A Japanese case study.

Explaining the rationale behind the launch, Miyu Fukuzaki, a Bath and Bodycare Produce Team buyer for Nol, said: "We decided to start offering distinctly Japanese goods. When the Olympics comes to Japan, we will have many overseas visitors and we are anticipating a 'Japan boom'. While we mainly want to sell to foreigners, we also want to appeal to Japanese customers."

Although the brand's image is very Japanese, Fukuzaki said the item was actually made in China, although she was quick to defend its quality. She said: "Our manufacturers are very skilled. They also make items for Disney."

In Japan, much as in Hong Kong, economy of space and storage is an important selling point in the gift sector. Things that don't take up much space are regarded very positively. Fragrance goods ably fulfil this requirement, but so, too, do paper goods. Orizuru is, of course, both.

Elsewhere, there were plenty of examples of the appeal of card or paper – from origami games to cardboard furniture, to even a reasonably effective smartphone amplifier, which uses just two paper cups and a linking piece of card (US$1.70). Meanwhile, Vivace, an Okinawa-based design label, had on offer an attractive range of necklaces, made from specially treated paper said to be resistant to water and sweat (US$42). As some of the designs used alphabet characters, these could also be rearranged to create personalised messages.

Another example of the prominence of paper was Kamoi Kakoshi's impressive stand. The Okayama-based masking tape manufacturer was in Tokyo to promote its range of paper masking tape, designed to be particularly suitable for household decorative purposes. Explaining the thinking behind this latest addition to its range, Shin Takatsuka, the Manager of the company's Consumer Division, emphasised the importance of variety when it comes to building a customer base. He said: "We have over 200 designs and it has become easier to create different designs in various quantities as they relate to demand."

While many of its designs are the traditionally female-friendly floral or patterned designs, the company also supplies a number of more unique style, with several of them inspired by the works of contemporary Japanese artists, notably Yokoo Tadanori. While keen to emphasise its supply side improvements in providing more choice for customers, Takatsuka also acknowledged that the business was also benefiting from growing ecological awareness and a heightened interest in DIY and hobby decoration.

In Japan, paper goods also serve an important role as promotional items, with small booklets, calendars or other similar items frequently used as giveaways for customers or business associates. With the possibility of the Olympics stimulating inter-company activity, the demand for such items can also be a barometer of business and economic wellbeing, at least according to Junichi Iwao, President of Tokyo-based Ichikudo Printing, a paper goods and packaging company.

While the company is mainly involved in producing CD and DVD packaging, it also had on offer a selection of innovative booklets, picture frames, information cards and calendars, all designed to appeal to the corporate market. The company recently won an award for one of its calendars – one that resembled the inside of a wardrobe, with each month represented by a men's jacket.

Clearly a true advocate of the versatility and eco-friendly nature of paper, Iwao said: "Paper can do many of the same things that plastics can. We want people to make the change from plastic to paper. The problem is the production cost is higher compared to plastics but the total cost – I mean the life cycle cost – is cheaper as paper is far easier to dispose of."

Photo: Simple shapes, clear colours: On trend for 2015.
Simple shapes, clear colours: On trend for 2015.
Photo: Simple shapes, clear colours: On trend for 2015.
Simple shapes, clear colours: On trend for 2015.

The 79th Tokyo International Gift Show was held at Tokyo Big Site on 4-6 February 2015, with 193,860 visitors, including 4,605 from overseas, slightly down on the previous February's 196,378 visitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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