Having invented a method for creating cultured pearls in 1893, Meiji Era entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto set about selling them to the world. Apparently not one for understatement, he once announced he hoped to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls.”

But how to achieve such a grand objective from the island nation of Japan — especially back at the turn of the 19th century, without telephones, planes, faxes or the Internet?

The Japan Times, of course! One of Mikimoto’s first forays into marketing his wares to the world involved purchasing advertising space in these very pages. His company’s elegant Art Nouveau-inspired ads first appeared in 1905 — almost simultaneously with Japan’s victory over Russia in the war that had been raging since the previous year — and they have continued on and off ever since. Now, an exhibition of Mikimoto advertisements, dating back to that early Japan Times artwork, is being held at Mikimoto’s flagship building in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

Celebrating 120 years since Kokichi’s pearl-culturing breakthrough, the show is also a good opportunity to venture back to a time when it was newspapers who were the disruptive media, revolutionizing the way companies did business.

“Pearls and Jewels,” proclaims a Mikimoto advertisement from the May 27, 1905, issue of The Japan Times. The text radiates dynamically from a pearl pendant at the advertisement’s right, while an oyster shell is placed at the left, no doubt intended as a reminder of Kokichi’s then-recent pearl-culturing discovery.

Mikimoto spokesperson Ai Niihori explained that from this early stage in the business, Kokichi was very keen to sell his pearls to foreigners and the diplomatic community, so they would spread the word about his achievement overseas.

Later ads are more specifically directed at temporary visitors to these shores. “Culture Pearls. A new and unrivaled invention,” states one, before noting that “Tourists are cordially invited to visit and to inspect how perfectly those pearls are produced.”

The appearance of these ads coincides with a turning point in Japanese advertising history.

Yoshiyuki Sakaguchi, curator at the Advertising Museum Tokyo, explains that “during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), newspapers gradually became a favored means of advertising for many Japanese companies.

“It was toward the end of the Meiji Era that many companies began establishing their own advertising sections, usually within or in close proximity to their founder or president’s office, so that his visions could be reflected accurately in the ads.”

A noticeable shift in advertising design appears to have occurred as a result.

“Prior to this time, early newspaper advertisements generally consisted of just text — as much text as the advertiser could fit into his or her allotted space,” Sakaguchi says. “But from around the late Meiji Era, it is clear that many ads, like these early Mikimoto ones, were made with more thought. For example, they started to make use of white space to make their message — such as ‘Pearls and Jewels’ — stand out.”

Given the elegance of Mikimoto’s advertisements in The Japan Times, it would seem likely that the company had created its own advertising section. However, Niihori says it’s no longer possible to verify whether that was in fact the case. She also notes that many of the early Mikimoto ads include drawings of the products themselves, and these may well have been the work of the industrial designers charged with actually creating the products.

One of the key people who helped shift the attention of fledgling Japanese companies such as Mikimoto toward newspapers as an advertising medium was Yukichi Fukuzawa, the prominent educator, writer and entrepreneur who currently adorns Japan’s ¥10,000 note.

In 1882, Fukuzawa had established his own Japanese-language newspaper, Jiji Shimpo, and he wasted no time trying to convince nascent Japan Inc. to splash out on ads.

In a now-famous essay, published in his own newspaper in 1883, he explained that, “More than leaflets, newspapers are seen from the palaces of royalty to the hovels of the poor; east, west, south and north, in cities and the country, near and far, there is nowhere that newspapers don’t reach.”

He went on to argue that because newspapers were purchased by readers — unlike leaflets — readers were inclined to “read every editorial, report or advertisement, lest they don’t get their money’s worth.” Next he turned his attention to appropriate levels of expenditure:

“In the West, it is said that advertising is the secret to sales and that the amount of money expended on advertising by merchants is gigantic — far greater than any old-fashioned Japanese merchant could imagine,” he wrote. “In America there are several people who spend $80,000 on advertising a year!”

While Fukuzawa obviously had a direct financial interest in pushing this new medium, his message was nevertheless picked up and echoed across the country. As Sakaguchi explains: “Once one company began taking out ads in newspapers, then others felt they had to follow; once one company established a division for creating ads, others had to follow.”

Sure enough, alongside Mikimoto’s May, 1905 ad is one for Yebisu Beer (“Come Gents, and have a glass of our delicious and sparkling beer”). Other issues from this period include ads for Kirin, Lion, Shiseido, Mitsubishi (as a bank) and many more still-prominent companies.

It’s also worth noting that Fukuzawa was an early investor in The Japan Times company, which was established in 1897 by his step-nephew Sueji Yamada and others. Hence it seems likely that The Japan Times advertising staff who sold space to Mikimoto were well-versed in Fukuzawa’s theory of the advertising potential of a medium that was then just beginning to gather steam.

“A World of Beauty Seen in Mikimoto Advertising” runs till Jan. 13 at Mikimoto Hall in the Mikimoto Building, 4-5-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. For further information, call Mikimoto Customer Service Center on 03-5550-5678. www.mikimoto.com

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