Lifestyle

Will Japan ever join the great Easter egg hunt?

by Tim Hornyak

Contributing Writer

A year ago, J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu released a song with lyrics and a promotional video that were as saccharine as a chocolate bunny. The song was titled “Easta” — a play on Easter and “a good start” in Japanese — and the video had dancing eggs, capybaras and fried-egg UFOs shooting laser beams.

While far from being one of her biggest hits, Kyary’s 14th single charted at No. 15 and was billed as Japan’s first Easter dance song. It was also tied in to an Easter sales campaign by retail giant Aeon. The tune may be entirely forgettable, but it signaled a renewed push to commoditize the Christian festival in Japan.

In Western countries, some Christians celebrate Easter with a church visit, a big lunch, and hunting or noshing on Easter eggs, either the decorated hard-boiled ones or the chocolate variety.

The eggs supposedly recall the tomb from which Jesus was resurrected: an empty shell containing new life. The symbolism is lost in Japan, however, where Christians have only accounted for a very small proportion of the population since Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in 1549.

Imported traditions

However, Japan is fertile soil for gaikoku festivals. In the 20th century, Christmas became a major commercial event in Japan, with Christmas trees, sales promotions and food campaigns held throughout the country.

For instance, Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan, which ran wildly successful “Kentucky Christmas” ad campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s, notched some ¥6 billion (about $57 million) in sales over three days last Christmas, a record high.

Aside from chicken, Christmas in Japan has another twist: It was rebranded as a date night, a time for lovers to dine in intimate fashion under the mistletoe.

Other Western observances have also drawn massive sales interest in Japan.

In 1958, Shinjuku’s Isetan department store held what’s said to be the first Valentine’s Day sale in the country.

Over three days, staff sold a total of five chocolates, at ¥30 a pop. The event was a dud but, over time, advertising and the growing popularity of Western lifestyles persuaded more consumers to open their wallets.

A child wraps some Easter eggs at the same festival.
A child wraps some Easter eggs at the same festival. | KYODO

In another Japanese twist, women traditionally buy chocolates for men on Valentine’s. The event became so popular that a confectioner and department store eventually coaxed men to reciprocate by buying into an entirely made-in-Japan event, now celebrated on March 14 as White Day (aside from sweets, jewelry is a longstanding White Day gift).

Belgian chocolatier Godiva stirred up controversy recently when it took out a full-page ad in the Nikkei newspaper calling on women to stop the practice of giving giri choko (obligatory chocolate) to male co-workers on Feb. 14.

However, whether that manages to break Cupid’s commercial lock on Japanese shoppers remains to be seen.

In 2017, the Valentine’s Day market expanded to a record-high ¥138.5 billion (about $1.3 billion), according to Kinenbi Culture Laboratory; at ¥134.5 billion, the market for Halloween in Japan is worth almost as much.

By comparison, Easter in Japan has usually been more of a nonevent. Some retailers focused on foodstuffs may run promotions yet industries as a whole have traditionally ignored it. There are a few chocolate bunnies on display at department stores in Tokyo, but they’re sold by European chocolatiers. When asked about Easter, a staffer at the information desk of a department store in Shibuya said she’d never heard the term.

But why? Easter — at least, as it’s celebrated in North America — seems to have all the right stuff for commercial success: sweets, cute bunnies, Easter egg hunts, and a strong association with springtime and renewal.

“The word ‘Easter’ itself has become known in Japan, but it’s hard to say that it’s a familiar concept,” says Tomoki Inoue, an analyst in the Social Improvement and Life Design Research Department at NLI Research Institute. “It’s recognized as an event for families with small children and not something that adults (especially those without children) can enjoy, which may be a factor in why it has not spread widely. Just because the relevant merchandise is cute doesn’t ensure popularity — because it’s targeted at children and young women. Also, Christmas and Valentine’s Day are on specific days, whereas the date of Easter changes every year.”

There are other challenges. Spring is when cherry blossom mania sweeps the country and most Japanese are keen on partying under the flowers with family, co-workers and friends.

What’s more, April 1 is both Easter Sunday and the beginning of the fiscal year, when new hires start their careers and other workers take up new posts, often in other departments or cities. The school year also begins in April.

All that means there’s little time left for a foreign celebration of candy and Christ.

Easter goods sit on display in Tokyo in March this year.
Easter goods sit on display in Tokyo in March this year. | TIM HORNYAK

Hopping market

Still, the Easter Bunny is inexorably hopping its way into the hearts of Japan. The Easter market, while small compared to Valentine’s, has nearly doubled in size in three years.

It jumped from an estimated ¥18 billion in 2013 to some ¥32 billion in 2017, according to Kiyoshi Kase, representative director of the Japan Anniversary Association.

Aside from increased media exposure and more businesses entering the market, Kase believes the market can grow particularly when Easter falls in March and thus won’t conflict with the events marking the beginning of the business and academic year.

Confectioner Morinaga & Co. began Easter promotions in 2015. Last year, chocolate maker Dars conducted a survey of 854 people aged 15 to 59 that found only 51 percent were familiar with Easter. To help boost that ratio, it launched an augmented-reality egg hunt app starring its bird mascot Kyorochan.

“People haven’t really grasped what kind of festival Easter is yet, but we can say that the sales of Easter-related products have increased since 2015,” says Morinaga spokesperson Ayako Kunichika. “We feel that public recognition and interest are steadily growing, judging by customers’ reactions at shops.”

It’s not surprising that retailers are trying to get consumers interested in Easter, but they have to explain it.

Chocolate maker Ezaki Glico Co. has a webpage on the meaning of Easter and how to enjoy it. Featuring a handful of photographs of Westerners enjoying Easter, along with rabbits, Easter eggs and even the Moai statues of Easter Island, the page describes Easter’s origins in Christianity and Germanic pagan belief in a goddess called Eostre, who is associated with spring and a sacred hare.

It concludes with six recommendations for how to enjoy Easter: painting eggs, hanging Easter decorations, holding Easter egg rolls, hunting for Easter eggs, wearing Easter bonnets and enjoying Easter cakes.

Theme park push

Some of the biggest promoters of Easter in Japan are the theme parks. It was Tokyo Disney Resort that initially sparked public awareness of the holiday as a commercial event in Japan, according to NLI Research Institute’s Inoue. The park even has its own characters called Usatama, named after the Japanese words for rabbit (usagi) and egg (tamago), that are basically eggs with rabbit ears and Mickey Mouse-style hands and feet.

This year’s Easter celebration at Tokyo Disney Sea runs from March 27 to June 6 under the banner of “fashionable Easter.” There are special performances, menu items and a range of headgear. A promotional video features a pair of young Japanese women wearing bunny ears and shouting “Happy Easter!”

“Because of this festival image promoted by Disney Resort, and with food companies doing confectionery and eggs, and retailers holding campaigns, it seems that Easter has come to be recognized as a family event featuring key elements of Easter bunnies and Easter eggs,” Inoue says.

Other theme parks are deploying made-in-Japan characters to generate sales at Easter. Tokyo One Piece Tower, an attraction at Tokyo Tower that’s based on the Eiichiro Oda hit manga “One Piece,” is holding an egg hunt.

Sanrio Puroland is putting on its Puro Easter festival from March to June featuring iconic fictional feline Hello Kitty, bonneted rabbit My Melody and Gudetama, an anthropomorphic fried egg with a butt and a severe case of the “blahs.” The latter has become a surprise hit, spawning all manner of merchandise.

“Sanrio began selling Easter goods in 2015, and one reason was that there was this perfect egg connection with Gudetama, the character we developed in 2013,” says Sanrio Co. spokesperson Madoka Hoso.

The parks are also working with manufacturers. Mayonnaise giant Kewpie Co. has teamed up with Universal Studios Japan in holding the Osaka theme park’s Enjoy Easter event, now in its sixth year. Aimed mainly at kids, it runs from March to June and features photo opportunities for those who dress up, and encounters with major brand characters such as Elmo, Snoopy and Cookie Monster.

“People have expectations for a theme park like USJ that they’ll be able to enjoy not only permanent attractions but also seasonal events,” says Universal Studios Japan spokesperson Erika Ishibashi. “USJ has a very successful Halloween event that’s been held since 2002, and it helped popularize Halloween in Japan. We think that through theme park events and company promotions, the customs of various holidays and seasonal events abroad can become widespread in Japan.”

A retail assistant hands a customer limited edition Easter goods in March 2015.
A retail assistant hands a customer limited edition Easter goods in March 2015. | KYODO

Hopes for a ‘spring Halloween’

Theme parks and candy makers aren’t the only ones trying to egg consumers on. Kewpie, which found in a 2016 poll that 47 percent of respondents had only heard the term Easter, sees the holiday as a good vehicle for its new dressing. It now has a dedicated Easter webpage declaring that Easter is on April 1 and April 8, inviting readers to enjoy eggs and vegetables. It suggests dishes that might give Western readers pause: a ham, cabbage and carrot Easter salad with a giant bunny face made of scrambled eggs, or a “roast beef tower” with an asparagus and paprika fringe.

Indeed, it seems like every consumer-oriented company in Japan is joining the Easter parade. Asahi Breweries is serving up Easter recipes and cocktails and cocktails made with Bols Advocaat, a Dutch liqueur. Itoham Foods is doing the same with pork-based bento boxes with bunny-shaped sausages. Kaldi Coffee Farm is selling Easter Blend coffee beans and Tully’s Coffee Japan is brewing up Poppin’ Easter Lattes topped with chocolate rabbit ears. Capsule toy maker Kitan Club is rolling out rabbit ear hats for cats. Nagoya Tokyu Hotel is luring customers with chocolate Easter eggs, hens and rabbits.

Daimaru department store’s Umeda branch in Osaka is pushing a range of goods as part of its “Kawaii Easter” campaign, including cakes, sweets, pastries, bento boxes, bunny backpacks and other merchandise. Have we reached critical mass for the resurrection of Christ?

“I don’t think there are many people who are interested in Easter in itself, but it’s a good opportunity to boost sales opportunities with cute motifs such as bunnies or chicks,” says Umeda Daimaru spokesperson Yoko Higuchi. “I expect that as a spring festival, sales opportunities will grow so that Easter becomes a kind of spring Halloween.”

Tweaks wanted

It’s unclear if Easter in Japan will ever rival Christmas, Valentine’s or Halloween. It may be one of the most important festivals of the Christian calendar but it’s still a hatchling here and needs to grow its retail wings before it can soar to commercial success.

“Like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, Easter also grew out of sales promotions by private companies,” Inoue says. “However, while the demand for gifts stimulates the Christmas and Valentine’s Day markets, there’s no clear demand for Easter gifts. The future growth of the market, then, is questionable if it’s only surrounding foods such as sweets and eggs as well as ornaments.”

Hakuhodo Youth Research Center head Yohei Harada notes that the spread of photos of Easter eggs and bunnies via social media has been giving Easter traction in the Japanese market.

However, he emphasizes that the key to making a foreign holiday succeed in Japan is localization: It needs to be tweaked or it should dovetail with local fads like cosplay, the art of dressing up as characters from manga, anime and other pop culture media.

“It’s said that it took about 20 years for Halloween to take off in Japan,” Harada says. “But I don’t think it will be as big as Christmas or Valentine’s Day. That’s because they’re both tied to the goal of spending time with a lover, but Easter in Japan does not have a purpose.

“Halloween in Japan has become popular as a cosplay event, but I don’t think that Easter will be that kind of event because it’s difficult to come up with costume ideas aside from dressing up as a rabbit. Whether Easter will be a hit here depends on whether it can become an event with value unique to Japan.”