Glorious Early 20th-Century Japanese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902–1954)


Ear­li­er this month, we fea­tured adver­tise­ments from Japan’s pre­war Art Deco gold­en age, a peri­od that shows off one facet of the coun­try’s rich graph­ic his­to­ry. While all forms of Japan­ese design remain com­pelling today, any time or place would be hard pressed to com­pete with the world of Japan’s pre-war print adver­tis­ing. It has, espe­cial­ly for the mod­ern West­ern­er, not just a visu­al nov­el­ty but a com­mer­cial nov­el­ty as well: as often as not, sur­viv­ing exam­ples glo­ri­fy now-restrict­ed addic­tive sub­stances like alco­hol and tobac­co.


At Pink Ten­ta­cle (a com­plete­ly safe-for-work page, believe it or not), you can find a roundup of Japan­ese print adver­tise­ments for prod­ucts that tap into just such vices. Japan opened up to the world in a big way in the mid-to-late 19th cen­tu­ry, and the coun­try’s accep­tance (and sub­se­quent Japan­i­fi­ca­tion) of all things for­eign kept chug­ging along right up until the Sec­ond World War. At the top, we have an appeal­ing exam­ple of this inter­na­tion­al­ism at work in the ser­vice of Saku­ra Beer in the late 1920s. The 1902 ad just above depicts not just the globe but a smok­ing Pega­sus astride it in the name of Pea­cock cig­a­rettes.


When the tone of Japan­ese life got mil­i­taris­tic in the 1930s, so did the tone of Japan­ese ads. The 1937 poster just above pro­claims “Defense for Coun­try, Tobac­co for Soci­ety,” a mes­sage brought to you by the South Kyoto Tobac­co Sell­ers’ Union. Below, the kind of Japan­ese maid­en pre­war graph­ic design always ren­dered so well appears in a dif­fer­ent, more out­ward­ly patri­ot­ic, and much more naval form.


It goes with­out say­ing that most of these ads’ design­ers geared them toward the eyes of the Japan­ese — most, but not all. After the war, dur­ing the Unit­ed States’ occu­pa­tion of the coun­try, there appeared print announce­ments in this same styl­is­tic vein urg­ing GIs and oth­er Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel to keep on their best com­mer­cial behav­ior. Take, for instance, these words the straight­for­ward­ly named Japan Monop­oly Cor­po­ra­tion placed beside this arche­typ­i­cal­ly court­ly but unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly stern tra­di­tion­al lady in 1954:


A valiant effort, but from the sto­ries I’ve heard of the occu­pa­tion, no amount of graph­ic design could’ve shut down that par­tic­u­lar black mar­ket. And final­ly, no look back at vin­tage Japan­ese ads would be com­plete with­out includ­ing one adver­tise­ment for sake. The ad below is for Zuigan sake, cre­at­ed in 1934.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Adver­tise­ments from Japan’s Gold­en Age of Art Deco

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Two Short Films on Cof­fee and Cig­a­rettes from Jim Jar­musch & Paul Thomas Ander­son

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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