On our next trip around the world, we stop in Japan to learn what unique challenges balloon businesses face and what cultural differences they celebrate.
CURRENCY CONVERSION: $1 USD = 109.22
FAST FACT: Japan is a string of more than 6,800 islands in the Pacific Ocean. Nearly 70 percent of the country is covered in forest, and there are over 100 active volcanoes. The country is an amazing mix of ancient history and traditions, alongside incredible modernization.
Questions and Answers
Would you say balloons are trendy and popular in your country/market?
Hitomi: I think balloons are popular but not widely popular yet. (in my area) It's not common that balloons are used for celebrations yet. (in my area) Balloons appear in media these days.
Emi: It's out of my business territory, but balloon gift is becoming popular, especially in this Covid-19 situation. I have an impression that more balloons are getting used as a gift for celebrations. Balloons are used in advertising and television for corporate promotion of their concept and story.
Mika: Balloons are getting popular every year in Japan. Especially, balloons are getting to be used more for birthday parties. I think it is because "home party," which had not been common before in Japan, increased. Balloons are a perfect fit for well-known Japanese "Kawaii" culture, and it has been seen more in TV programs, movies, and commercials.
Kishi: Yes, balloons are seen on TV such as song and talk shows program.
Koichiro: I think it's popular. Balloons are widely used mainly for weddings and parties and are seen often.
Sosuke: In Japan, twisting balloons made of single or two balloons are known, but intricate twisting works are not commonly known yet.
Is balloon popularity growing or decreasing in your country?
Hitomi: It is not commonly used, but popularity has been increasing a little by little in recent years.
Emi: I think balloon popularity is growing.
Mika: The popularity of balloons has been increasing. I think it is because the generation that once had played with balloons as they were children now became parents have recognized balloons as a more familiar item.
Kishi: The popularity has been increasing, but it is down now because of the Covid-19 situation.
Koichiro: Balloon popularity is growing. I think it is because the technique has improved, and a variety of balloon items are available. In Yokohama, balloons are now used at nightclubs along with event venues and parties.
Sosuke: Due to Covid-19, works such as line work and direct selling at a booth had dropped to almost none.
What balloon trend have you noticed in your country?
Hitomi: Animation and Disney character balloons are becoming more popular and increasing.
Emi: My work is mostly with corporate clients, and those who are involved with SDGs and sustainability, in general, show strong interest in balloons. Many people have an image about balloons as it is made of chemical substances and are not good for the environment. Many corporations start to show strong interest in balloons; once I explain to them, balloons are made of natural substance and biodegradable. In 2019, I visited the latex tree plantation in Thailand, and since then, I have been positively engaging to message out about the fact in my activities.
Mika: Japanese are very sensitive (fast passed) to trend of a year (colors, characters), and the popularity has spread nationwide quickly. The penetration has been speeding up influenced by SNS (social network sites). Especially, grey tone and beige tone color are popular right now. The deterioration of balloons happens quickly due to the humid climate, making long-lasting latex decoration is challenging.
Kishi: A popular color is pastel/chalk tone. The most popular occasion is a birthday. There is a high demand for 4" & 9" mini shapes.
Koichiro: Pop color and elegant styles are favored. There are many events in smaller-scale shops in Japan, so there are many requests not to overwhelm the space. For storefront decoration, columns are decorated more than arches. For the inside of stores, decorations are often done on the walls and ceilings. Also, eye-catching effects such as welcoming display and entryway decoration which guide customers into stores are requested.
Sosuke: For one balloon construction, the Chrome sword is popular.
Some of Hitomi's Work
Hitomi Nakayama, CBA
Atelier Balloon Stekki
Decorator, Performer in Shizouka, Japan
What types of celebrations are popular for balloons in your business?
Emi: For corporate clients, anniversaries and family days are popular.
Hitomi: For baby birth, birthday, and wedding celebration is popular.
Mika: Birthdays and weddings are the main celebrations for balloons. More people send balloons as gifts now instead of traditional flowers for celebrations of store opening and year celebration. Helium-filled balloons are sent for children and adults, arrangements have been popular.
Kishi: Because a birthday is all year round celebration, it is the highest demand. A wedding is popular as well but now is down a lot due to the current situation. Also, balloons are popular for store opening, retirement, and longevity.
Koichiro: Birthdays are the most popular item. Also, balloons are popular for Christmas, Halloween, and corporate year celebration ceremonies.
Sosuke: For a celebration, a birthday has the most request.
When is your busiest time of year? What about the slowest?
Hitomi: Usually, summer vacation and summer holiday seasons are busy. Early January and February are slow.
Emi: My entertaining business for children and family, the busiest season is from Halloween to Christmas. For my business as an artist and designer, I constantly have offers regardless of the season.
Mika: The busiest month is in March (graduation and a new start for school), October (wedding and events), and the slowest is January.
Kishi: April and Octobers are the busiest months, but the wave tends to slow down and to become constant all year round. The slowest months are January and February and very slow.
Koichiro: The busiest season is Christmas and New Year. From late November through January is busy. June season is calm.
Sosuke: The months which have many festivals, so from April to December is the busiest months.
Are there many independent balloon retailers (storefronts) in your country, or are mass retail chains more common?
Hitomi: Not many balloons shop in my area. Recently, many 100 Yen shops (like dollar shops) carry balloons.
Emi: There are a lot more flower shops rather than balloon shops. Every train station has a flower shop. However, still not many balloon shops nationwide, but many people do balloon business without a storefront, such as online shops.
Mika: There are not many balloon shops. Recently, more 100 Yen shops (like a dollar store) carry balloons.
Kishi: There are balloon shops, but not too many compare to large retail stores. Balloon shops are still rare.
Koichiro: Balloon shops are increasing but not too many. In Japan, the most common custom for celebration is sending flowers more than balloons, so many flower shops. In recent years, more florists have started to use balloons. With that being said, I think balloons are getting blending into Japanese culture.
Sosuke: There are not many shops specialized in only balloons.
Some of Emi's Work
Designer, Artist in Tokyo, Japan
What is the craziest or most bizarre balloon request you have ever received?
Hitomi: There was a request for work mostly in black color, Centaur costume for a groom for wedding banquet was amusing. Sometimes, children request creepy larva figures.
Emi: I first do hearing from corporate clients what kind of vision they have in mind. I try to understand their goal, why they have chosen balloons to achieve it, and why they have chosen me among many artists. By understanding it, there are no crazy incidents without any misunderstanding. With mutual understanding, any project can be executed smoothly.
Mika: The Japanese drum, Yagura (normally made of a wooden tower), and Mikashi (it is commonly used for Japanese festival-looks like a little temple to carry God's spirit )
Kishi: We have had a request for a complicated original latex shape.
Koichiro: I had a request to make something with “Nebuta” Festival (very large well-known festival) theme. It was a project to express Japanese culture in balloon art, and the setting was overseas, so it was challenging.
How/where do you do most of your business? Online or in-person?
Hitomi: Storefront, online, and telephone.
Emi: My orders come from corporate clients.
Mika: My business has a shop attached to an office. My shop is decorated with balloons and sells at a counter. I also run online shopping and do mail orders as well.
Kishi: We mainly take orders over the phone and ship nationwide in Japan.
Koichiro: Most of my work is created for hotels, brands, and model homes. Those businesses are held at party venues, restaurants, event venues/commercial venues, preschools, and kindergartens. I see clients face to face.
Sosuke: I make twisting balloons in front of customers at festivals (line work) and selling at a booth.
What about marketing? How/where do you get most of your customers? Word of mouth? Social media? Foot traffic?
Hitomi: People request me after looking at my balloon show.
Emi: By deciding target, make marketing strategy should be made to fit, but not all people who have balloon business can accomplish it perfectly. Therefore, I think it's important to gain partners by explaining your business vision rather than doing everything alone. I release marketing information at the right timing to pursue my next challenge or project. I send out the information repeatedly, so my challenge or message can be reached out to many people as possible.
Mika: I do web marketing, and customers place orders online. Also, others visit our storefront. The sale from Instagram has been increasing as well.
Kishi: At exhibition, e-magazine, homepage, and phone calls. Recent effective marketing is on Twitter.
Koichiro: I get calls through event companies. Many of them are repeaters, so they ask me every year. A lot from SNS, most come from Facebook. I don't advertise my business, but I ask event companies what kind of decoration works they want.
Sosuke: I am normally asked for work requests when I am doing twisting at a booth, also, from word of mouth or my friend referral.
Who is your target market/common customer?
Hitomi: My target is from high school kids to women around 40’s to grandmother who gift to grandchildren. Recently, more male customers have been increasing.
Emi: I have many business contents and brands, so I separate my target by the project. I set my target in detail, such as what kind of people I would want to work with and whom I want my work to use. By doing so, I think more right people give me advice, and my project or vision comes true.
Mika: The main target is mothers with little children, newlywed couples getting ready for a wedding, and grandparents with grandkids. In Japan, balloon art is still a luxurious item, but it is purchased for celebrations, weddings, and decorations as the "Kawaii" or party culture has penetrated many households.
Kishi: Our customers are mainly balloon professionals and event-related companies, and mothers who have small children, so our target is a wide range from children to adults.
Koichiro: I get requests from event companies and create works they are looking for. Or, I sometimes propose my offers and sell my works.
Sosuke: Most people who buy from me buy my work for their children or grandchildren.
Some of Mika's Work
Mika Itou, CBA
Decorator, Retailer, Storefront and Online Store in Gunma Prefecture, Japan
How has diversity played a part in your career? What challenges and opportunities have been presented?
Hitomi: I collaborate with artists in a different area other than balloons and create a different kind of world of art by combining each element, so I have been connecting other than balloons.
Emi: I have started my business as entertainment for children, now my business is known to a wide range of industries such as fashion and modern art industry. By doing so, my possibility expands, and it helps me to create works in a flexible mindset. I can't hold my excitement even now, more and more new possibility is on my way.
Mika: Balloons are the item which can deliver smile and feeling/sentiment and used from birthday, surprising propose, decoration to balloon
Kishi: Balloons awareness is still weak, so we need to let the public know balloons are perfect for filling empty space as decoration.
Koichiro: By competing at overseas conventions, my perspective toward showing and selling my works had shifted from focusing on craftsmanship to more business-oriented. I put effort into creating works considering color variations and clients' requests. The challenge from now on is developing new designs. I promote photo spot works on my catalog, so the designs I sell could be more patterned.
What unique challenges do you face in your country?
Hitomi: There are much fewer events due to Covid-19, so not many jobs in the area. Mostly sell at my store and need staffs.
Emi: Making a good team is challenging. There is a limit to what a single person can do, so my biggest challenge is making a team. I sometimes have help from professional consultants to accomplish my projects to find out what we are trying to accomplish, what kind of manpower we are lacking, and try to make many connections possible to find the right people.
Mika: It is crucial to choose the right balloon material for displays due to the Japanese climate. The timing of setting up, temperature, humidity, and how much wind is a condition in each season and influences the circumstances, so it's important to have the right judgment.
Koichiro: The challenge I have is having existing foil balloons to be useful to closest to clients' requests.
Sosuke: When the customer line gets so busy, I can hardly take a break.
What unique cultural customs in your country create challenges or opportunities for you?
Hitomi: I have been given an opportunity to perform for local festivals as part of my town's revitalization, create a local character, and make balloon cosplay based on a folk story. Also, balloons are ordered as decorations and gifts for ceremonies such as Seijinshiki (coming of age--20 years old), Shichigosan (cerebrate for age 7, 5, and 3), graduation, Hinamatsuri (girls’ festival), and boys’ festival.
Mika: Most Japanese do not have their own religious beliefs, so people adopt celebrations worldwide. People celebrate Christmas, Halloween, New Year, visit Japanese shrines and temples, and Shichigosan (celebration of children age 3, 5, and 7 years old). I think quickly acting to connecting already existing business to any celebration is important to spread more chances of business opportunity.
Kishi: The need for celebration for shop openings and longevity has been increasing. Also, in the current Covid-19 situation, more people do home parties, and the demand for gifting has increased even more, and people spend more money on gift-giving.
Koichiro: Some cultural events are going on during long holidays in Japan (New Year, Obon, Children’s Day), and many companies host events during this holiday, so I often have decoration jobs with those themes.
Sosuke: In Japan, Halloween culture is widely known in recent years, more opportunities for balloon use is increased.
Some of Koichiro's Work
Yokohama City, Japan
What is your biggest challenge as a business owner in your country?
Hitomi: Balance between distinguishing between volunteers and profit seeking. Trying to involve for works for Olympic. Expanding volunteer opportunity at hospital-related fieldwork.
Emi: Every single day is my challenge. As an example from my recent event on Feb. 11 this year, I had a new style of collaboration show to present a dedication to God with the form of creation by integrating balloons, contemporary dance, and projection mapping at a very prestigious shrine in Tokyo. The performance video: https://youtu.be/yQiGbemPbJk. There are many more challenges I want to accomplish, but I want to make people around the world to be fulfilled in mind by creating new value with balloons and delivering surprises and emotions. I will continue to challenge many to be able to achieve it!
Mika: Digging out (open up) a new market is my challenge. My goal is to make balloons the item people can feel free to purchase without any hesitation anytime, just like flowers. I would like balloons to be decorated on a table daily, just like people decorate fresh flowers.
Kishi: To be the leader who helps balloon culture be known widely and accepted more as the item, making everybody smile. To widely known more, media could help if they feature balloons. If more markets such as flower shops or party shops stock balloons in stores, balloon culture would spread more quickly.
Koichiro: The development of sellable works. Or how I can have my designs safe construction and make them appealing and attractive in my style.
We have found that balloons are a universal language of joy that crosses all socioeconomic, cultural, and religious beliefs. Do you have any stories or anecdotes you'd like to share that support that sentiment?
Hitomi: Because I don't speak English, so one day, I made a balloon flower and showed how to make it to a person who does not speak Japanese, the person was very pleased with it. Without exchanging conversation, balloons make it possible to communicate. Now, we are friends with the person. One day, I talked and made balloon twisting to a seriously ill child in a children's hospital. The child had shown a different reaction other than usual, and the child parents were also very pleased to see the moment, so I was very happy.
Emi: I do exhibitions not only in Japan but overseas. Every time I have the opportunity, many people talk to me and make me smile. For example, when I did a fashion show in the NY subway, a staff from Brooklyn Academy of Music happened to be there to see the show, and later on, he gave me an opportunity to create works again by invited me to NY. Brooklyn Academy of Music movie: https://youtu.be/N9WcN0h49Zg I was happy that my creations were accepted in a different country.
Mika: Balloon art instructors overseas are a good example. Communication with balloon artists worldwide is possible just by seeing steps of making and looking at visual works even though it is Japanese style balloon art or balloon techniques. Also, senior people at nursing homes use balloon art as part of their exercise, and rehabilitation is the hidden attractiveness of what balloons can do to help health. Koichiro: When I had a decoration job in Singapore, some crew members were stopped at the airport and could not join me. Because there was not enough time to construct it and I was in a panic, but my team members asked for help on Facebook, we could find ten volunteers locally. We had a language barrier, but wonderful work was completed by communicating using gestures.
Anything else you think people should know about your country?
Hitomi: I do balloon activities communicating with warm heart local people filled with abundant nature and hot spring towns with Fuji Mountain as background.
Emi: As many of you know, there are many Japanese balloon artists with wonderful skills. It is not only in the balloon world but in a different area (industry) as well! Japan's creativity in many areas is very detailed in the skill, and there are many skill-oriented people, so Japan's creativity is loved by around the world. I believe Japanese culture will develop further and keep evolving! I would be happy that Japanese creativity is continued to be loved. Please come to Japan to enjoy your stay once this Covid-19 pandemic ends!
Mika: I see the balloon market in Japan is still small (has much more to grow). However, the demand for the home party market has been growing. We have more opportunity to see sleek or fashionable balloon decoration of other countries on SNS, so customers visit our shop filled with imagination of balloons. I would like to share more attractiveness of balloons with many people.
Kishi: Many Japanese are serious about following ethical rules. Most people are self-restraint from celebrating and not gathering with other people in this pandemic. Many people are good at detailed oriented, so good at making things. However, they tend to be lucky in doing it as a business.
Koichiro: If you are thinking about competing in Japan, there are a few things you need to be careful about. Food is so good, and the bed is fluffy comfortable, so you are likely to fall asleep soon. Also, we are on time, so most Japanese contestants come to the contest room long before checking time. (laugh) Japan is a fun country, so please visit and enjoy!
Some of Sosuke's Work
Balloon Twister in Tokyo, Japan