Influencer marketing and SEO. Some important marketing lessons that are applicable to business in our time can be learnt from equivalents in business activities of 16th century merchants of Edo City (the former name of Tokyo when samurais were ruling Japan).

Show host Kyota Ko explains how “tangerines” and “candy” went viral 200 years ago.

The Edo Period

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, my name is Kyota Ko, and I’m going to share with you today a fun way to learn about Japanese history and marketing both at the same time. 

Japan had a long period of peace between the early 17th and mid-19th century. This period is called the Edo Period because Edo was the name of Tokyo at the time and it was the center of politics. There was no war with any other country during this 250 year period so businesses were able to develop themselves into bigger enterprises and more people used their time on being creative.  

In the Edo Period, many new businesses were born and it was especially competitive in the city, just like it is in Tokyo nowadays. When people went shopping, there were so many choices that merchants were forced to be creative in how they presented themselves and their products. And therefore, we see many interesting forms of marketing, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. 

The ex-king of fruits in Japan: tangerines

First of all, have you tried Japanese tangerines? There are several different breeds of tangerines but the most commonly eaten ones are called Unshuu Tangerines and these look like oranges, just that they are half the size and they are not completely round. They’re shaped like an oval. They’re really sweet and don’t have that sharp sourness of some other citrus fruits. 

It’s only recently that its intense popularity subsided and it gave up its position as the most popular fruit in Japan. Right now, Philippine bananas are the most popular, apples are barely second place, and tangerines come in third. The average person eats 7kg of bananas a year, while the average for tangerines is 4kg. Bananas are grown and imported all throughout the year, while tangerines are only available in autumn and winter. So if they were available throughout the year, tangerines would at least tie with bananas. I hope I’m communicating how popular the fruit is here in Japan.

Before bananas came into Japan and before there was cake, chocolate and potato chips in the abundance we have now, tangerines were not only the king of fruits in this country but it was the king of snacks in the winter season. It was eaten like those mini-sized Snicker bars. People ate 3 or 4 tangerines at a time. I told you the average person eats 4kg of tangerines a year, but at its peak in 1973, the average person ate *23kg of tangerines a year. Although there was a big downturn of tangerine consumption during World War II because there was hardly anything to eat then, tangerines have been an extremely popular snack since the Edo Period. Like for the past 200 years.

*Hosono, Kenji. ミカン産地の形成と展開ー有田ミカンの伝統と革新ー, 2009, 農林統計出版.

And we see an obvious but very important lesson in marketing in the reason behind its popularity. Of course Unshuu tangerines taste great and they’re relatively cheap, but what’s just as important is in the convenience. You don’t need a knife to cut open a tangerine. A 4 year old can rip the skin open with bare hands. And also, unlike oranges and other breeds of tangerines, Unshuu tangerines don’t come with seeds. There’s no need to pick off or spit out the seeds, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally biting into a hard seed. That’s a mini-bummer for anyone, I think. 

How immediately you can start consuming and how little hinderance you experience while consuming are definitely the biggest factors for its popularity. And Filipino bananas are really popular for the same reason. The quality’s great, and eating is made super easy. I guess designing a great user experience and great ergonomics are key to making a successful product, along with providing quality at a reasonable price.

Tangerines and influencer marketing

Now during the Edo period, tangerines go viral in the city of Edo. It was like the time when everyone started eating ramen in New York. The streets of Edo City were crowded with street vendors who carried big baskets of tangerines they had brought from the countryside. How did tangerines get so widely popular during a time without the Internet? Well there was some influencer-marketing activity going on in Edo. 

So gifts are really common in Japanese culture. Whenever you get invited to someone’s house, you bring a gift – some nice confectionery that you got from a department store. It’s considered improper if you forget to bring something. Also in summer and winter, there’s a custom where households send each other gifts as a gesture to show that they care for each other. They would send a pack of expensive beer or ham – something that wouldn’t go bad too quickly. This custom has become much less common, though, among younger generations. 

And during the Edo Period, bribery seemed to have often been done through gifts rather than money. They gave gifts like well-crafted swords or artwork or confectionery, rather than giving cash. Japanese people have never really liked exchanging cash with one another because it’s in our cultural DNA to dislike or shun people who divert far from the norm in terms of living standards through monetary gains. So Warren Buffet who lives a very simple and humble life style despite being one of the richest people on Earth makes him very likable from a Japanese perspective. He’s just not as well known as he should be in Japan due to language barrier. 

Whenever cash is exchanged between Japanese people, like paying your private tutor or your piano teacher, they would put the cash in a nice envelope, sometimes with flower prints on them, so that it looks like a letter, not money. 

But anyway, small boxes of tangerines were given to influential samurai lords as one of these gifts at one point during the Edo Period, and these samurai lords would give away some tangerines to their subordinate samurais who would show it off to their subordinates or give a slice or two to them. 

Imagine seeing your boss eating a bag of Frito Lays potato chips which you have never tasted in your life, and he gives you one or two chips. They taste great. But of course you’re not going to be satisfied with just two chips. You want the whole bag!

So these middle-class samurais would talk about their first tangerine experience with some local merchants, and the merchants would find out there is demand for the   fruit. So tons of tangerines get to be sold in Edo, the New York of Japan at the time, and other regions would follow suit because people in rural areas aspired to live the Edo lifestyle. So we can see that influencer marketing is nothing new. Similar marketing must have been done for ages all over the world, and it works.

Marketing strategies of candymen 

Tangerines were seen as an equivalent to confectionery in the Edo Period but let’s look at actual confectionery. Let’s look at how candy was marketed in Edo City.

Candy itself was around for a long time. The earliest record in Japan is from the 8th century. Candy was not just a snack but also a type of medicine. Like cough drops. And here’s an important point. Japan considered itself a third world country and on the other hand considered China as a first world country perhaps up until the end of the Edo Period. Art, medicine and pretty much anything advanced came from China. And in fact there seem to have been many Chinese merchants who came to Japan to sell medicine and candy.

Now from early on in the Edo Period, Japan isolates itself from other countries for around 200 years. The reason is said to have been to oust Christian missionaries who came from Europe. Only the merchants from countries that were not interested in religious activities were allowed into ports, so that narrowed it down to the Netherlands and China. Even these people were only allowed to stay over at designated areas near ports, so ordinary Japanese people hardly had a chance to see foreigners. 

But in everyone’s mind, candy equalled medicine and medicine equalled China, and China equalled exotic. So Japanese candy merchants wore exotic costumes, whether it really was a Chinese outfit didn’t matter, as long as it looked exotic, Korean or Okinawan outfits did the job. Ordinary Japanese people wore kimono during this time, so their wearing Korean hats and western button-down shirts and thereby looking like a foreigner made Japanese candy merchant look credible and authentic.

And soon looking like a foreign national didn’t matter anymore. It became more important to look outrageously exotic. So candy merchants did everything they can to be perceived as out of the ordinary. They blew folk Chinese oboes that are called the Suona. It kinda sounds like whistling with a blade of grass. The timbre is definitely not in the Japanese musical vocabulary. So children living in Edo would gather to the sound of the Suona because that was where the candyman would be. They would spot the guy with the candy easily because he would be wearing a very distinguished costume.

But then if all candy merchants were dressed in costumes and blowing the Suona, who should the children go to? Competition got fierce. So some candymen started putting on a show to entertain kids. They did extravagant dances or put on a puppet show, and when the children came, they exchanged candy for their money. The candy was the ticket. So on the streets of Edo, there were all these street performers selling candy. The marketing tactics they were basically applying here was click bait. 

Much later in time, after Japan lost World War II in the mid 20th century, for a while, there were these men who went around parks in the city putting on picture-story shows. They would gather children in front of their little booths, give out candy in return for the admission fee and do some professional story-telling. These are called Kamishibai 紙芝居 in Japanese and it is said that these story-tellers were the descendants of the candymen in Edo. 

Modern Japanese rockstar utilizes same marketing strategy


As television became more affordable and made it into the average household starting around the 60s, the Kamishibai storytellers went out of business. So we don’t see them anymore. But there is a Japanese rockstar, perhaps the most famous guy – he gets cast on Nissan TV commercial ads, this rockstar called Eikichi Yazawa makes tons of money with a slightly similar business model as the Edo candymen’s.

Mr. Yazawa is already 70 but he still gathers an average of 13,000 spectators per concert. Imagine a rock singer with a George Clooney type of dandism who has the body figure of Michael Jackson. He’s an ideal way to age even from a man’s point of view. At his peak he would sell tickets to over 50,000 people for a single show. Now he is of course a rock’n’roll musician, but we also may be able to say that he is a rock’n’roll businessman.

What’s characteristic of this rock musician is that he hangs a lengthy towel on his neck whenever he sings on stage. He sings with his husky and manly voice and swings and rotates his mic stand and his fans in the audience are like Oh my God he’s so hot!! And all the while his towel is dangling from his neck, and in some songs he would swing the towel around above his head, and the fans do so too. Towels are the uniform of Yazawa fans. They’re absolutely necessary to have the full Yazawa concert experience.

So the fans check out the design of the towel Mr. Yazawa was wearing on stage and during intermission, they flock to the Yazawa goods retail shop set up right outside the auditorium and buy the towel with the design their idol was wearing. And they get sold out. 

Just before the show resumes, Mr. Yazawa would ask his retail staff which towel designs are left over, and put those on and go back on stage. And as you can imagine, the fans would see that he has a different towel on Oh my God v! So they go back to the retail shop and buy out the remaining towels. Mr. Yazawa and his crew leave the auditorium without having to do much packing of left over stock. 

So luring customers by putting on a show and then  selling goods that complete the customer experience many be an effective marketing tactic. Customers happily spend. I think I’ll  keep note of that. 

Anyway, I hope this episode brought you some inspiration and/or amusement. Thanks for listening. それでは、またお会いしましょう。