From the German packaging innovations, described in a previous article, it is good to travel to Japan. I always have been impressed by the genuineness and creativity in combination with sophisticated technology and the application of natural materials in Japanese packaging. Over the last years I have frequently written about new developments in Japanese packaging. Today I want to start a series of 3 articles giving an overview of several market segments. This one, the first, will describe packaging for rice and rice products. The second will look into the beverage market, including coffee, a very large product in Japan and the third will go into the packaging of typical Japanese snacks.
But first rice. Rice, as a cereal grain, is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world. It is the grain with the second-highest worldwide production, after corn, according to data for 2010. But since a large portion of maize crops are grown for purposes other than human consumption, rice is the most important grain with regard to human nutrition and caloric intake, providing more than one fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans.
As it is a commodity, it is marketed as such. In other words we find it mainly distributed in the simple pillow bag. And that’s also the general situation in Japan. However the Japanese are an inventive people and when you want to pop-off the self you have to be creative. And so came the Moe-Rice about.
According to Wiki, Moe (pronounced mo.e) is a Japanese slang word. People use Moe to mean a particular feeling or characteristic. The term “moe” can be tacked onto the end of any personality trait or physical trait to create a new type of moe. According to Patrick W. Galbraith it means “a rarefied pseudo-love for certain fictional characters (in anime, manga, and the like) and their related embodiments”.
Moe Rice (萌米) is aimed at helping Japanese people rediscover the love for eating tasty rice. Last year, Mukouyama Shouten, a rice retailer in Osaka, started a new campaign for moe rice, featuring Chuablesoft bishoujo illustrator Ginta’s illustration of rice lover Kinu Mimasaka in her school uniform on their packaging. The seasonally rotating series will be revising Kinu with new 5kg rice bags. Each bag includes a special code that lets customers download messages from the seiyuu voicing these moe rice mascots. In addition, the company also aims feature rice from different regions of Japan every three months.
With this simple packaging innovation rice producers discovered that using attractive cartoon characters on their packaging increases sales tremendously. Online this Moe Rice packaging sells for 8 to 10 times more than the non-moe packaging, with the exact same contents inside.
Japan also houses a large range of rice lunches. These lunches, sometimes consumed as snacks, have a long history and always have been packed in natural material, such as bamboo sheaths. In the modern markets there often is no room anymore for the traditional packaging materials, but the Japanese see fit to use modern material and modern technologies to imitate and come as close as possible to the original packaging.
The traditional use of natural material for packaging needs a bit more historic explanation in reference to the modern high-sophisticated Japanese society. Although unquestionably, even today the most amazing examples of traditional Japanese packaging are those made of natural materials such as bamboo, straw or wood, mass production and modern life-styles replace the natural materials with synthetic ones. Whatever the switch to modern packaging materials nature still plays a key role in Japanese aesthetics. In Japanese packaging design, imitation per se isn’t looked down upon; the difference provides both a degree of abstraction and an allusion to a spiritual connection with nature.
Although, as symbols of mass-production, efficiency, convenience, and cleanness, plastics may take over the place of traditional material, many packaging designs borrow from nature and traditional craft and valuable materials like wood, bamboo and seaweed by imitating the appearance through modern printing techniques. Though often regarded as poor imitation, it illustrates the Japanese need to enrich even ordinary things with a pleasant touch.
Let’s have a look at some snacks. We start with the traditional rice lunch in bamboo sheath.
Rice balls in Bamboo sheath
The story goes that in the early days of the Japanese railroad, farmers started selling lunch sets to train travellers passing by rural stations. They prepared o-nigiri, rice balls, with pickled radish and wrapped them in bamboo sheaths. Such packages were not products of contemplation, nor yet of theory. They assumed their shapes over years and years of unconscious use and experimentation. Although these natural packages are disappearing, there are still premium caterers in various regions, who create o-nigiri rice balls wrapped in bamboo sheath and other traditional products as sasa-dango, dumplings wrapped in bamboo grass.
Bamboo sheath is the leaf that covers the sprouting bamboo shoot. The leaves are used as they are, from the tip to the stalk. Only a single thread of straw ties up each piece. The green colour of the dumplings derives from yomogi (mugwort) mixed into the dough.
It was by far the most common material used in Japanese packaging. Having become a symbol for unadorned rustic freshness, bamboo not only transfers its aroma to the food inside, but has also become a symbol for natural, unaltered, charm and quaintness. In modern times bamboo is also the most replicated. In order to benefit from its luxurious connotations and increases efficiency, the today’s food packages are often simply printed with the bamboo sheath’s texture on the wrapper.
Triangular Rice Balls in seaweed
O-nigiri (お握り), also known as o-musubi (お結び) is a squashed-up lump of rice with a filling inside, wrapped in seaweed paper called nori. It’s been eaten for centuries in Japan although the exact style and fillings have changed over the years. Originally it’s thought to have been invented because chopsticks didn’t exist so it was an easy way to eat food. It then seemed to become popular for outdoor events like picnics, but now it’s mainly eaten as a quick snack. It’s also changed shape from being a ball to being triangular or oval shapes.
Traditionally, an onigiri is filled with pickled ume (umeboshi), salted salmon, katsuobushi, kombu, tarako, or any other salty or sour ingredient as a natural preservative. Because of the popularity of onigiri in Japan, most convenience stores stock their onigiri with various fillings and flavours.
Despite common misconceptions, onigiri is not a form of sushi. Onigiri is made with plain rice (sometimes lightly salted), while sushi is made of rice with vinegar, sugar and salt. Onigiri makes rice portable and easy to eat as well as preserving it, while sushi originated as a way of preserving fish.
For the home-made onigiri, you pick up a piece of crisp roasted nori, wrap the ball in it, and eat it as fast as possible. The idea is that the crisp nori makes a perfect contrast against the soft, tender rice. Eating too slow can lead to papery, wet nori.
As a variety of onigiri rice balls wrapped in clear plastic can be found lined up on the shelves at any conbini, short for convenience store, the question is, how do you package this snack to be sold at a convenience store without letting the nori go soft?
The Japanese are masters at ingenious packaging. This thoughtful package design was first developed by Suzuki, an Osaka-based food processing machine maker in 1989 and won them several awards. To open these triangular objects, you simple follow the numbered steps printed on the plastic. There is actually a thin layer of plastic between the rice and the seaweed sheets, which slides out of the way when you open the package. This keeps the seaweed nice and crispy right up to the moment you pop the rice ball in your mouth.
The next articles will describe the snack market and the beverage/coffee market.