The Fukubukuro “Lucky Bag” craze during the Japanese New Year

The Fukubukuro “Lucky Bag” craze during the Japanese New Year
20 December 2016 Sam Holtmon Life
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In what many consider to be Japan’s equivalent of Black Friday, eager shoppers are awaiting the arrival of fukubukuro (福袋) bags hitting the shelves over the New Year holidays. Fukubukuro combines the word fuku (“good fortune”) and bukuro (“bag”) to form “lucky bag”. These are sealed shopping bags sold at a fixed price and containing all sorts of items, including clothing, electronics, cosmetics, food, coffee, and even holiday trips abroad. The catch is that a shopper won’t know what’s inside a bag when they purchase one. It’s a hit-or-miss affair―hence the “lucky bag” nickname―but that’s what makes it a fun experience.

As a result of the buyer not being able to know what’s inside, the respective items are sold at a fraction of their original price. For instance, a lucky bag containing 100,000 yen (around $850 US) worth of goods can go on sale for 10,000 yen (around $85 US). Consequently, this is a big hit with people eager to score some bargain buys.

These bags tend to go on sale for a week from January 1st. This results in people forming long queues overnight outside department stores like Isetan and Mitsukoshi in order to snap up a lucky bag before they sell out. Some shops stock only 100 bags (or less), so they sell out within hours―sometimes minutes―so people are advised to camp out early in order to get the best bags.

This appetite for fukubukuro goes back generations, with the first lucky bags going on sale in the late 1800s in the affluent Ginza shopping district. Initially, the items sold were clothes, but this has now branched out to a whole range of other goods.

The prices of these bags vary depending on the store, but they tend to start at around 3,000 yen and can go up to 30,000 yen and sometimes much more. For instance, this year, the Takashiyama Osaka department store will be stocking some of their bags with unbelievably extravagant items. Lucky shoppers can expect a Japanese sake set worth 100,000 yen, or a gold tea ceremony set priced at over 200 million yen ($1.6 million US).

Big brands such as Apple have also latched onto the lucky bag craze. They sell bags for around 35,000 yen ($300) each, which contain all sorts of prized goods, such as speakers, laptop cases, iPod Nanos, and, for some lucky shoppers, a MacBook Air. Popular electronics store Yodobashi Camera also offers a range of its very own lucky bags filled with cameras, electronics, games, and batteries to entice shoppers. These are usually priced between 5,000-10,000 yen and people can get some worthwhile bargains.

For more unconventional items, Takashimaya has announced that 20 of its fukubukuro this year will give someone the opportunity to drive a train during a package holiday in the Tohoku region. To avoid baffling someone who has no interest in driving a train, an application is required to stand a chance of picking up this bag.

There’s literally a lucky bag for everyone. So many shops ranging from Sanrio (Hello Kitty) and McDonald’s to Starbucks and Muji take advantage of the desire for fukubukuro.

People unhappy with their haul call their bag utsubukuro (“depressing bag”), and some stores actually promote their bags with this nickname; the bags usually contain various knick-knacks and unwanted clutter. These utsubukuro can be sold for as little as 500 yen. Akihabara stores are notorious for selling these unhappy bags, and they sometimes stuff them with lots of old manga publications they no longer want to stock.

Indeed, the fukubukuro phenomenon not only benefits the bargain hunters, but outlets also appreciate this custom as it is a way of offloading surplus goods that have built up over the year. It also fits with the Japanese New Year ethos of ōsōji (spring cleaning, or literally “big cleaning”), whereby you rid yourself of excess weight as you enter the new year fresh, light, and raring to go.

Another incentive of latching onto this New Year shopping mania is that stores can expect added online exposure thanks to an increasing amount of people giving both text-based and video reviews about their fukubukuro experience. And if the customer is happy, the store at which they purchased their bag can expect a glowing review.

Naturally, the fun of fukubukuro is not knowing what’s inside, but customers can now get a better understanding of the content because there’s usually a label on the packaging indicating how many items there are inside and what kind of items they are. In clothing shops, for example, it will state if there are sweaters, dresses, pants, or shirts inside. It will also indicate the size of the clothes―whether it’s small, medium, or large. This helps to avoid disappointing the customer once they open the bag at home. And increasingly, stores allow for customers to reserve a lucky bag online. While some disproving people believe that this defeats the purpose of the fukubukuro tradition, others appreciate the convenience of getting to avoid the hustle and bustle of an excited crowd of shoppers.

Lucky bag trading can also take place outside department stores. At times, it can play out like a hectic day on the trading floor of a stock exchange, with people waving their bags wildly in the air, holding up unwanted items and hoping for a juicy trade. To see this swap meet in action, visit the entrance of Shibuya 109 in the early hours of January 2nd as this place is notorious for fukubukuro trading.

At the end of the day, fukubukuro isn’t so much about the products, but rather the experience. For many, it’s a fun day out filled with anticipation which friends can share on social media. Also, while the Japanese can certainly get a bit Black Friday-ish in their pursuit of particular bags, they are generally able to get just excited enough to cause ridiculous crowds and light, passive-aggressive, almost even “polite” shoving matches, to our knowledge nobody has ever actually died or been seriously injured in a rush for fukubukuro, so the’ve got that going for them. For that reason, enjoyment can be had by all!

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