Yasuo Tanaka

Never Never Land

Graphis #343

Hadaka, or “naked,” is what the Japanese call something without a package or wrapping of some sort, and it’s considered very bad form to carry something naked in public. Even paperbacks are discreetly concealed with logo-patterned paper at the point of purchase, in case you plan to read on the train, in front of strangers. Wrapping connotes distance, and in a crowded, highly hierarchical society like Japan’s it’s very important to clarify exactly what that distance is. If you’re giving a gift of symbolic importance, say in one of the ritualized gift-giving seasons at midsummer or New Year’s, you should present it in a package that is as as ambiguous as possible, evoking a respectful distance between you and the recipient and an elegant distance between the object and its package. If you’re giving something to your neighbor, you should pretend you just pulled it out of your own cupboard and maybe wrap it in some leftover paper you found. Erring either way will make people mad at you, or at least confused: You should never give pre-packaged cookies from the supermoarket to a superior, nor should you present a close friend with overly wrapped high-priced cakes from a department store, unless she’s giving a fancy party to which some not-so-close friends have been invited. The basic rule is this: The closer you get to home, the more casual the wrapping. Until recently, when patronizing your neighborhood shopping arcade, it was actually good form to BYOP (Bring Your Own Pan) to the tofu-maker’s shop. Nobody communicates through packaging like the Japanese.
Packaging is traditionally so laden with meaning that how you wrap something is more important than what you wrap. But if you’re a Japanese package designer today, negotiating the new, slower economy is tough going. Yasuo Tanaka, CEO of Package Land Co., Ltd., is trying his best. “The market is gloomy,” he says, “and we have no way of knowing which way it will go. But we’ll just have to find a way through it with our good cheer intact.”

Tanaka grew up on the dark side of Japan, by the Japan Sea, where it’s rainy and cloudy for six months of the year and snowy and cloudy for the other six. He went to university on the southern island of Kyushu because it’s warm. He lives in Tokyo, but spends his free time traveling in spacious, sunny American environments, enchanted with the bright colors and atmosphere of major league stadiums, golf courses, and improbably vibrant desert cities like Las Vegas and Santa Fe. He loves gaiety but understands restraint.

Tanaka’s twofold character is serving him well today, because in the midst of Japan’s worst recession since before the war, every product area and retail outlet is bifurcating into two extremes, and the package designer is caught in the middle. “Uniqlo or Chanel, that’s the choice,” Tanaka says. (Uniqlo is like The Gap, only cheaper, featuring mostly rough-stitched unisex clothing in warehouse-sized stores.) Like everywhere else on the planet, in Japan convenience stores are taking over the Ma and Pa shops and on the other end of the scale there will soon be nothing left but high-end department stores. During the “bubble years” of the late 80s, package designs and fees were out of hand, so something had to change. Tanaka says that the market has finally calmed down, “to the level of real life.”

Unfortunately, real life in urban Japan, where the money is, is dominated by availability, speed, and price. That’s why there are 50,000 convenience stores and the restrictions and competition for packaging products for them are brutal. “Package design has been subsumed into the distribution system,” Tanaka tells me. “Between that and the bad economy, it’s pretty hard to hold on.” Products have only one week to do or die, and digitalization has spawned a slew of what Tanaka calls “average, as opposed to professional: package design, which depends almost wholly on graphics. Conceptual packaging or packaging that explores the possibilities of form and construction are almost nonexistent in these quick-sell venues. In these cases, Tanaka does what’s expected; he uses photographs of the object inside to help the consumer decide quickly what to buy. Then he exercises his minimal freedom by playing with the form, arousing interest in the product by making the box surprising, as in his package for Porcal Cream Cheese Sandwich Crackers.

The problem with convenience stores and the packaging they produce is that they only work in convenience stores--brightly lit gladiator’s pits of commercial competition. Taking the product out of that context, (to extend the “naked” metaphor to its extreme), is like seeing a prostitute in a church: in a normal environment, they look shockingly garish and scantily attired.

Tanaka didn’t get much out of his university schooling, but early on he joined an extracurricular group that gave him a head start on package design. In the weekly “paper group,” a big-name designer taught Tanaka and four others, among them professors and professional designers, what you could do with paper. The group made calendars, packages, mobiles and presentations to the instructor. In his senior year, Tanaka entered a Coca-Cola carrying case design into an annual competition sponsored by Oji Paper, the largest paper manufacturer in the country, and won. Oji hired Tanaka and for the next ten years he did basic research into the market, materials, and machinery of packaging. He spent his formative years training himself to see and use graphics, materials and forms as separate entities, and he has no intention of allowing graphics to dominate his work just because everyone else does. In recent years, Tanaka has been experimenting with the limits and meanings of form and material. His work for exhibitions tackles these questions: milk cartons deconstructed and reconstructed into adaptable sculpture, bags pierced by boxes and bags sprouting cubes, laminated boxes illuminated from within, and a hand gripping a cell phone shrink-wrapped to death. How does one interpret such work: Is Tanaka describing the suffocation of communication? Is Tanaka frustrated with the packaging business?

He has never lost that dark, Japan Sea perspective, so, yes, sometimes he gets depressed. But Tanaka can inject playfulness into packaging, even for the ubiquitous “towel gift,” which is what the Japanese give when they can’t think of anything else, or when a perishable ritual gift is impractical. Gift towels are sold at all kinds of retailers, but the sales floor is inevitably dull, filled with slight variations on the rectangular box with the transparent plastic lid. For Honda he made “T’s Stone Gift,” an earth toned towel packaged in an octagonal box. He deliberately put a simple, flexible towel into a complex, rock-shaped box, expressing a very soft thing as a very hard thing, because, as he said, “...a towel can become a stone. I thought it would be fun.”

Tanaka occupies an office designed by architect Ando Tadao, and he treats it, he says, “Like a big toy box.” Sporadically, he straightens it up, but more often he collects bits and pieces of interesting paper and string and stashes it there so that in the middle of the night, he explains, “I can find the perfect material, before the idea disintegrates.” The original kanji (Chinese character) for “wrap” is the embryo, and the primary Japanese wrapping is the furoshiki, a square piece of cloth, portable and unobtrusive, that can be as small as a hankie, a full meter square, or any size in between, but both are purely functional. Whenever possible, the Japanese intensify the visual and tactile experience with variety, which for packaging is expressed in materials and graphics, and for which the possibilities seem endless. Tanaka is a master at using them to intimate a multitude of cultural locales and moods. For products of western origin, he tends to use western materials, like corrugated cardboard and straw for a summer gift of Suntory Whiskey, and English type and copy, which for a Japanese audience has the added charm of being visually recognized before it’s actually read or understood. For traditional Japanese products, he chooses mostly Japanese materials like washi paper, woven string closures, and even gold thread and pine needles, as well as all three forms of written Japanese, any of which can be read from top to bottom, left to right or right to left.

Yasuo Tanaka is a successful package designer in a competitive and imitative market. But there just doesn’t seem to be room in Japan today to consider the essence of ideal package design. Materials and forms have to be designed for shipping and storage, graphics for tightly confined use within a ritualized society. So finally, Tanaka expresses his questions by experimenting with self-promotion pieces or exhibition packages, most of which are conceptual and impractical to the extreme, things that ask the viewer: What is a package and what does it mean? Recent examples ara a 3D valentine’s package that looks like a cactus and a shrink-wrapped group of well-sharpened colored pencils, each one about to poke through the membrane. Ouch! Within this oeuvre there are packages that could be produced if consumers were interested in enjoying a package for its melding of function, form, and graphics. For example, a bath-beads dispenser Tanaka made out of translucent plastic, button fasteners, and plastic tubing works beautifully and radiates cheer in the bathroom. It may be too far outside the box for the Japanese public, but Tanaka must be thanked for continually pushing the boundaries.

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