Unpacking emotions

The Hidden Layers of Meaning in Japanese Packaging Design

Feb 13, 2017 · 4 min read

I’m half-Japanese.

I have lived outside Japan for most of my life, but I was born in Tokyo and still have relatives there. Sometimes they send me things. Last week, they sent me some sweets.

Love is hard to communicate with 2000 km and a 13-hour time difference between us, but I get the point. :)

But I’m not writing this to rub delicately coloured, intricate rice paper wrappings in your face while I stuff myself on perfectly sweetened chestnuts swathed in red bean paste held together by delicately crisp fried mochi that melts in my mouth.

As I unwrapped the boxes, I noticed some pretty interesting (and very Japanese) things about their design, that I’ve never really thought about before.

First, I should say that in my (admittedly half-white person) experience, the soul and center of being Japanese lies in doing everything more than perfectly. Perfectionism is for young grasshoppers. Masters know that there is no goal. There is only endless refinement, spiralling into mandelbrot infinity.

That is what I love and hate and admire about being Japanese.

Okay, let’s unpack that a bit. Literally.

This is a package of monaka sweets from the Japanese equivalent of Selfridges. It’s wrapped in paper that is pretty, but bland. The pattern depicts cherry blossoms, momiji leaves, and paulownia symbolize spring, autumn, and Japan respectively. Their shapes and colours are old-fashioned and invoke a sense of nostalgia, but their presence does not have any significance.

Remove the paper and the box underneath looks like this:

Okay, this is more like it. The box is covered in luxurious navy blue and has a pattern of vines and chrysanthemums outlined in an exquisite satin-sheen. There is a paper ribbon around the middle with a country landscape. Pretty, but again, seems random.

Unfolding the outer wrapping paper reveals pictures of ancient Japanese aristocrats hidden in its inner folds. Okay, definite tones of old-fashioned and classy. This is how fine folks in Japan dressed, roughly 1000 years ago. Since the sweets are named “Chinese Prime Minister Monaka” that makes sense…kind-of? I guess?

The lords and ladies are Japanese, but they date from the time when Japan received a lot of cultural influence from China (and China had prime ministers).

Let’s look inside the box.

The letter and a monaka, at last!

Lying between me and sweet, crispy, chewy goodness is a letter in beautiful calligraphy from none other than the CEO of the department store explaining that he wanted his monaka to capture the essence of how you feel when you sit down at a small tea-house in the countryside outside Tokyo (must be a long time ago. I know that countryside is now a suburb where my relatives live).

The letter is quite poetic in its description of the countryside: crystal-clear waters of the Shakujii River, flowers in spring, and colours of the leaves in the fall (sakura and momiji on the packaging: go figure).

Looking at the paper ribbon around the box again, sure enough, it shows the countryside he describes.

Please excuse my fake, thrift-store Rolex, which is in the picture to show scale. The details on this ribbon are tiny and immaculate!

Heh. All this effort put into the equivalent of a box of chocolates?

Like I said, suuuuper Japanese.

As for me, my gaijin-half and got tired explaining and I had to stop and eat something. It was delicious. Too delicious. That’s why there are no pictures of what the monaka themselves look like out of their plastic wrap and split to show their gooey adzuki, chestnut, and mochi centres. Sorry (not sorry).

Although…after all these exciting design-y details, the taste of the food was almost beside the point. I was consuming the atmosphere and the feelings, not the food itself.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as trying too hard when it comes to a box of sweets? Would you like to see that level of detail and design on Icelandic candy? Comment below.

Written by Isabella Price
Webmarketing and content specialist at Karousel


Written by


A creative agency based in Reykjavík, Iceland. We are strategists, writers, designers and programmers with a heart for social change.

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