A museum full of rubbish

Japanese wrappers on display in the SieboldHuis

By Marleen van Wesel

Two Leiden Japanologists have put together an exhibition on packaging. The latest trend: gifts for no reason.

“Actually, it’s all rubbish.” Katarzyna Cwiertka, Professor of Modern Japanese Studies, is talking about the items featured in the exhibition Too Pretty To Throw Away: packaging design from Japan, which opens this week in Leiden’s Japanese museum. “Everything would be thrown away.”
Cwiertka is one of two guest curators; Ewa Machotka, a lecturer at Japanese Studies, is the other. When the exhibition closes in August, the project, which receives some funding from Cwiertka’s Vici grant, will be transferred to the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Poland, where both researchers originally come from. “It’s a spin-off of my study on waste, but we didn’t expect things to turn out quite like this.” Initially, the idea was that the two researchers would demonstrate the continuity of the Japanese packaging tradition through the ages.
“Many works on Japanese design focus on that continuity, i.e. the notion that in Japan people were obsessed with wrapping in the past too. We had read all the books on the subjects, but once we had actually visited Japan and studied the shops and department stores as well as the museums, we couldn’t find that parallel. We had a bit of a crisis. Luckily, we soon thought: hey wait a minute …”
The exhibition now displays the real history of the Japanese tradition of packaging. “After the Second World War, the Japanese wanted the American dream too. Beer cans, disposable plates and plastic cups soon became the norm. Then, as more and more supermarkets – another American invention – opened, packaging became even more of a necessity.” The same happened in Europe too, for that matter.
“The seventies were a pivotal moment in the Japanese packaging tradition. On the one hand, Japan went its own way, even in technological terms. On the other, retro design became a firm favourite. The packaging designers started to use more and more old shapes and patterns, often inspired by art. That’s what makes it seem as if it were a continuous process.”
The exhibition features modern disposable packaging and ancient consumer items. There’s a picnic basket and a sake bottle, for instance, which were never intended to be thrown away after use. That’s not to say disposable packaging did not exist in the past. “Things like leaves were often used to wrap up food. But Von Siebold (one of the first travelers to Japan, MvW) didn’t collect any, unfortunately.”
Part of the exhibition displays wrappers that were entered into a competition organised by Japan Package Design Association (JPDA) in 2015. “That part actually shows that there are plenty of things that aren’t inspired by the past, or even look ‘Japanese’. It varies enormously. Quite a few wrappers are inspired by luxuriously wrapped gifts.” For instance, in the JPDA catalogue, there’s a crisp packet covered in a printed pattern of ribbons and bows.
It’s reminiscent of another part of the exhibition that centres on gift wrapping. “That’s much worse. All those products and their packaging are wrapped in another layer with even more care. It’s like when you buy perfume in the Netherlands.” However, the Japanese tradition of gifts, with two gift seasons and all sorts of complicated rules, is quite a bit older. “And it’s become even more popular thanks to modern consumerism. The latest trend is gifts for no reason, but beautifully wrapped.”

Too pretty to throw away. Packaging design from Japan
Japanmuseum SieboldHuis,
10 June - 28 August
Waste in Asia Conference
Academy Building 9 - 11 June

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