6 Nov 2015
Japan's Youth Rediscovers its Past at the 2015 Tokyo Gift Show
Retro stylings, classic images of Japan, newly reinvented aroma dispensers and a bewildering variety of smartphone and tablet accessories and covers dominated proceedings at the 80th iteration of the Tokyo International Gift Show.
Of all of Japan's major trade shows, the Tokyo International Gift Show (TIGS) is the hardest to read and the one where the trends are the least easy to discern. This is largely because it embraces quite so many different categories – stationery, food, fragrance goods, toys and health products, to name but a few.
It also seems the most static of trade shows, often leaving attendees with a distinct sense of déjà vu. The influence of smartphones on the gift sector and the trend toward Japanese styles, for instance, are both well-documented and continue to dominate.
Despite this, even though things appear unchanged at first glance, careful attention will often reveal sub-trends or more covert developments. Such, indeed, was the case with the latest edition of the show.
Just when you might have thought the uptake of smartphone accessories had peaked, this year's TIGS highlighted unexpected developments in the sector. Products designed to adorn, protect or otherwise customise smartphones were widely in evidence, while the number and variety of cases and accessories on offer was greater than ever before.
In the past, just having a smartphone was a step up from the old Galapagos [proprietary models only sold in Japan] flip-phones then standard in the country. As these more high-tech digital devices have become ubiquitous, there is no longer any real kudos in having one. In fact, almost the opposite applies. Earlier this year, an article in Forbes magazine highlighted the growing appeal of the old-style flip phones, a trend partly driven by their greater durability and cheapness and partly by a kind of retro appeal.
In order to stand out, then, smartphone owners have to find new ways of accessorising and enhancing their phones. This compulsion seemed to be driving many of the gift ideas on display this year, including luxury phone cases, with some fashioned from expensive woods and others resembling small luxury handbags.
Zen, the high-end phone accessory brand, for instance, was showing a wide selection of smartphone cases in Japanese cow hide, all either embossed with brass or pressed into snakeskin textures. These were retailing for around US$120. The way in which you accessorise your smartphone, then, has clearly become a key area of fashion expression for many Japanese consumers.
Elsewhere, the use of character goods was, once again, proving popular. Hiroshi Ugata, President of the Pink Company, was attending the show to promote the company's range of smartphone accessories, including kitten earphone jacks and clinging tabby accessories, all retailing for around US$5 apiece. The designs are based on characters created for the company by Otako Nekomura, the noted Japanese artist.
Clearly targetting a primarily female audience, Ugata said: "These products are popular with all age groups, from elementary school kids to ladies in their sixties and seventies. This market is growing considerably. I think people like our products because they are very cute, small, round and white. I think these are the four characteristics that ensure popularity in Japan."
Ugata also sees a direct correlation between modern Japanese tastes – with their current focus on accessories for smartphones and other small items – and what he describes as the country's "netsuke culture." In the Japan of old, garments lacked pockets and people used to hang things from belts or cords. Netsuke, then, referred to anything worn on the person – such as a cord toggle or pill case – that could be carved into highly decorated figurative forms. Elements of this have found their way into modern design, a legacy boosted by the modern smartphone and its range of strap ornaments, jack mascots, and protective cases.
Ugata said: "One of the key points about netsuke was miniaturisation. I think that is very important to the Japanese."
A less obvious example of netsuke culture can also be seen in the decoration or "blinging" of other items destined for everyday use. This manifested itself in umbrellas decorated with LED lights, as well as various kinds of iron-on spangles that could be used to customize fabrics and bags.
Indeed, netsuke culture can be viewed as part of the reason for the increasing popularity of designs that reference traditional Japanese culture. In a similar spirit, some exhibitors aimed to create a matsuri [festival] atmosphere, complete with brightly coloured pavilions and staff dressed in vividly-coloured kimonos.
This was a motif also adopted by Big Star, a phone accessory manufacturer and importer based in Chiba, a city some 25 miles to the southeast of Tokyo. This year, the company was highlighting its Spirit of Japan range of phone cases (US$12), screen cleaners, and cleaning pouches, all with designs derived from Japanese religion and mythology. Once again, Hiromi Onuma, the company's President, saw a connection between its products and netsuke culture.
She said: "Smartphones provide a stimulus to the demand for a range of small items – phone straps, plug-in mascots… This is definitely connected to our netsuke culture."
The company also had on offer a large number of other designs, almost all featuring well-known images of Japan, including sumo, sushi, and Mount Fuji. According to Onuma, this range was designed to appeal to the large number of tourists that Japan has attracted over recent years, while she hoped they would also prove popular with domestic consumers.
While some view the tourism boom as the main driver of the trend for Japan-themed goods, not everyone agrees. Yuko Mukai, an Assistant Manager with Nippon Kodo, a Tokyo-based fragrance and incense company, sees it more as a reflection of cyclical generational trends. She maintains that this has been driven by younger people taking a greater interest in retro items in comparison than their parent's generation. Highlighting this, she said: "I think many younger Japanese people are more interested in our original culture and old style."
Nippon Kodo's core business is the production and sale of the traditional incense associated with Buddhist ceremonial practices. It also offers a range of more conventional fragrance products, including Aroma Vera. This is a Californian brand that the company now produces under licence in Japan.
While Aroma Vera is western in style, its latest brand, Kagunomi [aroma fruit], pushes things in a distinctly Japanese direction. The scent delivery system used for the aroma oil, for instance, resembles traditional Japanese confectionary. A fragrance set with four dispensers retails for around US$55.
Explaining the thinking behind this new brand, Muaki said: "We decided to launch this brand when we noticed a similar trend in the fashion and interior goods sector, particularly with regard to furniture, table settings, and dishes. We wanted to make something similarly traditional, but with the kind of modern appeal that we saw in these other areas."
The new oil aroma brand has even been making inroads into the company's traditional incense market, where the use of the original product – especially in the homes of the extreme elderly – has come to be seen as a serious fire risk.
The Tokyo International Gift Show 2015 took place at Tokyo Big Sight from 2-4 September. The event attracted 189,948 visitors, compared to 190,269 last year.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo