What underpins much of my research is an interest in symbolism and how symbols can be used to understand aspects of Japan. Although this aspect of my research may be most apparent in my publications such as Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, Japan: The Basics, and ‘Contents Tourism in Plane Sight‘, it is also a part of studies such as Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Response to the Flight JL123 Crash.
For a number of years I have been planning a new academic book related to this research about symbolism and Japan. The biggest challenge – other than getting to Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic – was finding a concept that could tie together everything that I wanted to look at. While a starting point was thinking about Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs (with it being around 50 years since the book was first published), there was much more than this. Another aspect that would be key was that of ‘wrapping culture‘ – a concept put forward by Joy Hendry, and, as I have discussed in another post, is one of the most important concepts for not only my research, but also for what I want to teach my students about Japan.
But, ‘wrapping culture’ doesn’t address everything that I observe (primarily in Japan, but elsewhere too). Furthermore, it covers aspects that are not of interest to me. While I have no doubt that the ‘wrapping culture’ of language is accurate and important, I would never describe myself as a linguist and have no interest in researching the linguistic elements of Japanese, Japan, or symbolism.
For so long I have been searching for a term that would work for what I do want to study and explains what the process I am studying is. Finally, on 9 November 2021, I had a Eureka moment. It happened when I walked into a part of my house and saw the following view…
It is an unremarkable, ordinary sight. But I realised there was a key aspect about the tins of food. The packaging is designed so that anyone can understand what the contents are. This is what I am interested in. ‘Wrapping culture’, on the other hand, includes aspects (such as gifts) whereby the wrapping hides the physical contents.
Pulling on my studies of marketing and doing some searching of the internet, I was happy that fundamentally it is ‘packaging’ that I am concerned with. Furthermore, I am primarily concerned with the visual element. Although the visual may include text, I am primarily concerned with images and pictures. Finally, I added to the concept ‘culture’ as a nod to ‘wrapping culture’ and to suggest that this is a cultural practice that is conducted.
I see Visual Packaging Culture as a subset of Wrapping Culture. In Venn diagram terms, it would look like a fried egg with Visual Packaging Culture being the yolk. I have not yet thought of a case where there would be Visual Packaging Culture which is not also a form of Wrapping Culture.
It has taken a long time to get to the point where I have a term that I am happy with (at least for now – maybe I will tweak it in due course). I’m sure that I could have reached my eureka moment much sooner – but a variety of other things had been blocking me from having the clarity of thought to reach that moment.
What I find interesting about Visual Packaging Culture is that while there are elements of it which are ‘natural’ – that is, it is obvious from the packaging what the contents are, there are also cases when the visual packaging doesn’t match exactly with the contents (think of tins of baby food that show a picture of a baby – we know there is no human content in the food but the food is for a baby – or tins that show how the contents of the food could be presented with other foods – we know that the other foods in the picture are not part of the tin).
There is a hierarchy visual packaging symbols – from the natural to those that have to be learnt. How this process happens and how this helps to understand what Japan is will be the focus of my new study, which will use a number of case studies (including things such as maps, flags, kamon, emoji, sumo, and the imagery associated to things such as intercity transport and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) to explore visual packaging culture.