Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2017

Illustration in Japan

Japanese Illustration

Looking through a collection of recent photos, I realised I had quite a few pictures I’d taken of signs and logos where I really liked the illustration they used. That lead me to realise that this is a major reason why I choose to live in Tokyo. The visual language of the Japanese would be considered so esoteric by people back in the UK. For me, it’s enigmatic and familiar at the same time, often incorporating European and American iconography that is then twisted or exaggerated or even overlayed with oriental elements to align with the tastes of the Japanese. The above rabbit motif for example I saw on the sign above a cleaners, and the below image is stuck to the door of my elevator in my apartment building.

Japanese Illustration

It’s basically warning you to avoid getting your hand trapped in the elevator door. This overlaps somewhat with another area of visual communication loved by the Japanese: diagrams and infographics. These can be found everywhere, from leaflets to toilets, even on restaurant menus. Here’s a typical example:

Japanese Illustration

Although the above diagram looks pretty hard to fathom, there are much worse to be found, especially in pamphlets and promotional material from banks and mobile phone companies. I don’t think anyone understands them, they just look reassuringly informative. The next one I took outside a restaurant in Kayabacho. It’s obviously a Sumo wrestler, so often associated with food, but I just liked the style of the way it was drawn. If you were so inclined, you could easily create a flickr set full of interesting restaurant signs from Tokyo. Sometimes you even get robotic crabs or mechanized moving chopsticks lifting noodles out of a ramen bowl. White, back-lit boxes like this one are very common though.

Japanese Illustration

One place you might not expect to find good illustration is on a carton of milk, but in Japan it even finds its way onto those. Like in the following example which is a mark for the Japanese milk industry. It’s similar to the rabbit at the top of this post in the sense that it’s got all the hallmarks of vector-based illustration software written all over it (literally). Even so, it’s well executed and I liked it when I noticed it on the side of my carton of milk I bought from the supermarket. I think it was Meiji brand.

Japanese Illustration

One final one I wanted to post is one I’ve been seeing everyday on the train since Suntory started this new campaign to promote its black oolong tea as a health product. According to the scary looking guy in the next picture you can reduce the amount of fat your body gains when eating fatty foods by drinking it. Love this character. He’s obviously from an old animation show but I don’t know which one. Please let me know if you know who this guy is:

Japanese Illustration

UPDATE: I’ve been told that this guy is actually a slightly modified version of Boris Badenov from 60’s animation Boris and Natasha. He may also have appeared in Rocky & Bullwinkle? Thanks to Melissa Pouridas for the info.

UPDATE 2: Another reader (check the comments thread) has told me that this character is from a manga and anime and his name is The Laughing Salesman or Warau Serusuman (笑うセールスマン). I watched a couple of episodes and this guy is seriously disturbing. Whether or not the character was inspired by Boris Badenov is open to debate. Warau Serusuman first appeared in the manga BIG COMIC in 1968 as Black Salesman and Boris Badenov first appeared in Rocky and Bullwinkle in 1959. Boris’ hat and trenchcoat is very generic so it could be argued that the link is tenuous at best. Thanks to British artist Wil Overton for the info this time.

Here is an episode for you:

TV アニメ「笑ゥせぇるすまん」 第1話 「たのもし… 投稿者 spyagent0011

UPDATE 3: On the salesman’s business card, his name reads Moguro Fukuzou – a very strange name in Japanese, but his real name all the same, and his occupation reads Kokoro no Sukima (ココロのスキマ) which I think means cleansing of the heart. So, he’s a quasi-supernatural character who spiritually purifies base and vulgar salarymen!


4 Responses to “Illustration in Japan”

  1. Wil Says:

    Hi Stephen,

    I don’t think Melissa is quite right there. He’s a Japanese character called Erusuman created by Fujiko Fujio, the duo more famously responsible for the atomic cat from the future – Doraemon. He’s appeared in both a manga and an anime version although I’ve never seen either. My wife even has a little wind-up of him so he gets about a bit.

    Really enjoy reading your blog, by-the-way. :)

  2. Stephen Says:

    Thanks Wil! I thought he may have been from a manga but I couldn’t find his name. After reading your email I did a search and found out his name is Warau Serusuman, but you really need to search using Japanese to find out the real info (????????). Thanks again!

  3. Wil Says:

    I figured that I’d gotten the name a little wrong but that’s what I get for not being able to read Japanese and half relying on Google translate :)

  4. Stephen Says:

    I got the same translation when I translated the Wikipedia page so no worries – Google’s fault!

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