8 Nov 2018
Scandi Style Holds Sway at Economically-Resurgent Tokyo Gift Show
Traditional Japanese goods reimagined with a Nordic twist was one of the noticeable trends at this year's Tokyo International Gift Show, as was the emphasis on aesthetics and the hints of rising demand and economic revival.
The Tokyo International Gift Show (TIGS) is a vast, sprawling event that lacks the focus and distinction of many comparable – but smaller – shows. Here, visitors can find all manner of items on offer, including clothes, interior decorations, furnishings, foodstuffs, toys, hobby goods… Indeed, as the show demonstrates, almost anything can be a gift.
Thanks to its size and wide remit, the show has, traditionally, never been too concerned with aesthetics or with creating a certain mood. That, though, has started to change of late. Indeed, the most recent edition of the show had a noticeably more designer feel than previous events, with stylish stands and pavilions, as well as the use of colour-coded carpets to distinguish the various sections.
The improving aesthetics and layout also seemed to give it a more upmarket feel, which could also be taken as an indication as to just how the Japanese market in general is changing. Overall, it suggests two key shifts – firstly that Japanese tastes are becoming more sophisticated and / or luxurious, perhaps a sign of a strengthening of the market overall, and, secondly, that presentation is becoming ever more important.
One sign of these more sophisticated tastes was the large Ethical Style section of the expo, with an extended range of goods incorporating environmentally sensitive elements on offer. In line with this, a number of exhibitors were showcasing wooden watches, including those sold under the South Korean brand Vowood. Keen to emphasise its eco-friendly approach, Jong Yu Kim, Chief Executive of Mr. Challenge, the company behind the brand, said: "The wood we use is not treated with any chemicals, except for a basic coating for waterproofing. It's natural wood that has been harvested and then handcrafted.
"Beyond that, our selling point is that we provide a free, customised engraving service, which means a customer can specify a message like: 'I love you' or add initials or emojis. We offer this as a watch often given as a present or, sometimes, a couple might buy a pair of watches as a sign of their mutual commitment."
Another sign of growing sophistication was the increasing modernism apparent in the designs of many of the more traditional Japanese goods, items that are popular with both tourists and locals. Often such items can seem somewhat clichéd, but here, too, tastes seem to be evolving, with a more stylish, modernist aesthetic creeping in.
A good example of this was the Scandinavian Pattern Collection, which applies Scandinavian motifs to traditional Japanese goods. Among the most popular items it has on offer are tea bowls and trays (US$30), paper fans ($20) and tea ceremony paper napkins ($8 a pack).
Explaining the affinity between Japanese and Scandinavian tastes, Nobuko Imai, Licensing Manager of andFika, the licensing agent for the Scandinavian Pattern Collection, said: "The Scandinavians and the Japanese have very much the same mentality and the same emotional palette. Like us, they are very patient, work hard and are very polite."
The brand now has 35 Scandinavian designers on board, including artists from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. While it could have commissioned Japanese designers to imitate Scandinavian design, Imai emphasised the importance of maintaining a genuine Nordic connection, saying: "Scandinavian – and especially Swedish – design is very popular in the market, but if a Japanese designer tried to make Swedish-like products, it would not be a true Swedish design. Swedish designers are very much a product of their own country, where, every day, they see the forest, the flowers and the town buildings that inspire them. That's why the designs they make are very different to ours."
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, Imai was also keen to point out the international appeal of these products, saying: "I think the tastes of those foreigners coming to Japan is changing. They no longer want something touristy, but instead they want the kind of products that Japanese people would buy for themselves."
Also tapping into Japan's love of Scandinavian style was Serenti, a Yokosuka-based distributor specialising in imports from this particular corner of Northern Europe. Attempting to outline just why such items pique the interest of Japanese consumers, Director Chie Morikawa said: "I think the main trend right now is for cafe-style – the kind of items you find in informal restaurants or even in Starbucks, the kind of places where people spend half their time looking at their phones. People here want something simple and natural, but that chimes well with an urban environment."
Aimed at the middle market upwards, among Serenti's most in-demand items were cork and cloth handbags from Uisto ($100-180), watches from Lund ($200) with changeable straps ($50), a flower-shaped solar powered light, designed by the famous Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson ($50-60), and a designer butterfly feeder from Finland ($80).
When queried as to the relatively high price of the butterfly feeder Morikawa said: "Yes, it's costly, but the Japanese can now afford to splash out occasionally…"
As an observation, it certainly holds water. When doing business in Japan, consumer spending power is seldom an issue. Right now, the Japanese have plenty of money and are usually willing to pay over the odds for things they really like. The problem, though, is breaking into the market in the first place and then building customer awareness.
Nowadays, though, there are a number of interesting new solutions emerging to this particular problem. In the case of Mr. Challenge, for instance, it used the Japanese crowd-funding site Campfire to help launch its Vowood range. Explaining just how this worked in practice, Kim said: "Three years after we launched the range in Korea, we used Campfire to help gauge demand in Japan.
"Basically, we set a fundraising target and, once we hit that particular goal, we initiated a production run and shipped the watches from Korea. We succeeded in meeting 25% of our target in just two days, so now we're trying to exceed our initial goal."
By using this crowd-funding approach, Kim was able to test the market with a relatively small volume of goods and save on marketing costs, allowing the company to offer highly discounted prices. For the next stage though, the company is looking to raise the stakes all round with Kim saying: "While the crowd-funding approach allowed us to test the market response, our goal is now to find an exclusive distributor who can manage the brand in Japan.
"After following the same route in, we now have distributor deals in place in China and the Philippines. We have found this to be a flexible and forward-looking approach to trialling new markets."
The 2018 Tokyo International Gift Show took place from 4-7 September at Tokyo Big Sight.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo