Shigesato Itoi, The Copywriter: A Comprehensive Look
Shigesato Itoi sports a new look on the March 1983 cover of the weird multimedia magazine Studio Voice.
As every person in Japan knows, and as most overseas fans of Itoi know, Shigesato Itoi is, first and foremost—before and after his stint of entirely casual video game production—a copywriter. His taglines (known in Japanese as “catch copies”, a term I much prefer) include many ubiquitious phrases that are recognizable to anyone in Japan, regardless of whether they have ever heard of Itoi The Man.
I’ve gathered a list of his best-known work and translated it into English to introduce Itoi as Japan knows him. Among many other things Itoi has been in charge of the copywriting for Studio Ghibli. (You will see, also, why the catch copies do not accompany their films once they hit foreign shores.)
Note: Adjectives are commonly attached to pronouns in Japanese, something I’m quite jealous about because it makes so many things so much smoother to say. It would be completely ordinary to hear “beautiful you”, “old him”, “clueless me”, etc., so many taglines take advantage of this clean phrasing. If I can translate the tagline into normal English, I’ll try, but if I can’t quite get it right, I’ll have to just leave it as a literal translation and give up on keeping the originally correct grammar.
A collection of taglines by Shigesato Itoi is after the jump.
First, two non-commercial tag lines Itoi wrote for the magazine Koukoku Hihyo, Japan’s top advertisement critique magazine that ran from 1979 to 2009. In June 1982, the magazine ran an anti-war campaign and Itoi submitted two tag lines which were published in the collection.
- “After you, Prime Minister.” [Mazu, souri kara zensen e. まず、総理から前線へ。] (lit: “The Prime Minister shall step up to the front-lines first.”) (Design by famous art director Katsumi Asaba)
- “Either way, dying sucks.” [Tonikaku, shinu-no ya-da mon ne. とにかく、死ぬのヤだもんね。] (Design: Takayuki Soeda)
This design features a high school student, presumably squatting outside of a convenience store as one often sees groups of boys doing when lazing around town after school.
- 1980: “eatsleepplay.” — Nissan Cefiro [kuu neru asobu くうねるあそぶ。]
Commercial starring famous singer/songwriter Yosui Inoue.
- 1980: “I see you sparkling now” — MINOLTA X-7 camera commercial with Miko Miyazaki
- 1981: “I want to do Romantic.” — Suntory Red [Romanchikku ga, shitai naa. ロマンチックが、したいなぁ。]
- 1981: “My ‘you’ is the best in the world.” —Parco Department Store poster [Boku no kimi wa sekai-ichi. 僕の君は世界一。]
- 1981: “Crazy for you” — Kanebo, makeup company [Kimi ni, kura kura 君に、クラクラ]
- 1984: “A, B, C, D. Read the part that applies to you.” — Perrier (unconfirmed)
- 1984: “No one can make Perrier.” – Perrier (unconfirmed)
- 1984: “Imagination and a few hundred yen.” — Shinchosha paperback
- “‘It’s so warm, it’s so warm!’ my big brother said, warmed up to his ears.” — Apparel brand Onward [Attakai naa, attakai naa tte, aniki wa atama made attakaku nacchimatta. あったかいなぁあったかいなぁって、兄貴は頭まであったかくなっちまった。]
- “Nice to meet you.” (In Japanese: “Yoroshiku.”)— Poster for rock star Eikichi Yazawa
- “We did it.” —Poster for rock band RC Succession
- 1984: “Are you a hunter or a traveller?” – Parco commercial featuring American pro wrester Stan Hansen
- “I love dummies who read books.” —Parco poster
- “Play and sleep.” — Parco poster
- 1988: “There’s no such job title as Salaryman.” — Seibu Saizon Group, newspaper classified ad
- “Sentimental 50% Journey” — Sanyo Raincoats
- 1989: “No crying until the ending.” – MOTHER
- 1990: “Change with orange” (pronounced oh-rahn-jay) — Shiseido, Reciente makeup line featuring Rie Miyazawa
This tagline is actually quite unique from the other ones in that it’s written entirely in katakana in order to look like the entire thing is in a foreign language. I actually thought it was entirely non-Japanese myself until I realized the second half of it was just an undercover Japanese verb. The phrase can be transcribed as “Oh-rahn-jay De Ki-do-ru” and the de in the middle is a Japanese particle which means “by means of” or “through”. It’s also conveniently a particle in French, so bam. And kidoru is a Japanese verb that doesn’t actually have an English equivalent, so the closest I can get is “to put on airs; to be a fancy-pants”.
- 1991: “To ping is to pong. To tak is to kyuu.” (takkyuu: Japanese for table tennis) — 41st World Table Tennis Championship (unconfirmed)
- “The real main character is you.” — Tagline for “24-Hour Television” on NTV, aired at the end of the credits
- 1994: “Adults, children, and even older sisters.” — MOTHER 2
- 1997: “TRAiNG” — East Japan Railway Company
Commemorative beer cans for sale on the Shinkansen during the introduction of the TRAiNG campaign.
- 1999: “Only is not lonely.”— Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun
- 2004: “Innocence, that is life” (Catchier in Japanese since “life” is inochi) — Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
- 2006: “Strange. Funny. Heartrending.”— MOTHER 3
Studio Ghibli Taglines
- 1988: “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Probably.” — My Neighbor Totoro
- 1988: “At 4 and 14, they tried to live on.” — Grave of the Fireflies
- 1988: “Here. You forgot this.” (lit: “I brought you this thing you forgot.”) — My Neighbor Totoro/Grave of the Fireflies
- 1989: “It’s been hard at times, but I’m alright.” — Kiki’s Delivery Service
- 1991: “I’m going on a trip with Me.” — Only Yesterday
- 1992: “This—this is what Cool is.” — Porco Rosso
- 1994: “Tanukis are doing the best they can too, y’know.” — Pom Poko (Tanuki = Japanese Racoon Dog)
- 1995: “I found someone I like.” — Whisper of the Heart
- 1997: “Live.” — Princess Mononoke
- 1999: “The safety of family is the wish of the world.” — My Neighbors the Yamadas
- 2001: “On the other side of the tunnel, there was a mysterious town.” — Spirited Away
- 2002: “It’s not so bad being a cat, now is it?” — The Cat Returns
- 2004: “The two lived there.” — Howl’s Moving Castle
- 2006: “It’s what you can’t see.” — Tales from Earthsea
Shinchosha Publishers Taglines
Shinchosha has held an annual book event of sorts every summer since 1976. The company promotes a list of 100 books (technically more when two-part books are included, as all parts would count as one title) both new and old, both classic and upcoming. Eleven books are included in the list every year, such as Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Click on each poster to see the full version featured in stores.
- 1984: “If you read all 100 books, I think something outrageous will happen.”
- 1985: “Intelli Gen-chan’s Summer Vacation” (Japanese pun on the word intelligentsia)
- 1986: “Read with your fists. Read with your boobs.” (No, the topless person in the picture is a man.)
- 1987: “I am a summer baby.”
- 1988: “Dad read this summer, too.”
- 1989: “The summer we stopped juvenility.”
- 1990: “I’m a slow reader.” (Written in katakana, the alphabet used for animal sounds. …And Chinese characters, used by people–obviously.)
- 1991: “Morning Glory and a hundred pages. Cicadas and fifty pages. The voices of frogs with a hundred pages.” (Hundred pages is also the word for a Chinese tofu product, which may or may not be intentional in this catch copy.)
- 1992: “One summer ten years later, I cried again.”
- 1993: “The blue sky is the largest reading light in history.”
- 1994: “It’s easy to feel the start of summer.” (In Japanese the start of something is usually referred to as the “head”, so literally this says “It’s easy to feel the head of summer.”)
- 1995: “One pair of undies and literary samadhi.” (This has sort of a pun quality to it in Japanese. The word for samadhi in Japanese includes the character for “three”, and almost sounds like both halves are counting something.)
- 1996: “‘Read me,’ the book said.” (The book, like our 1990 poster seal, is speaking in katakana and kanji.)
Seibu Department Store Taglines
- 1980: “Refind yourself.” (10 years before Nirvana’s Nevermind; can we say ‘we have a winner’?)
- 1981: “I love mysteries.” (in Japanese: Fushigi, daisuki. Has a little more ring to it.)
- 1983: “Delicious life.”
Delicious life. was the slogan for a famous ad campaign in 1982 for Seibu Department stores. The ads featured Woody Allen and the tagline together in several posters. In Japanese, oishii (delicious) can also act as an alternative to “juicy” in English: juicy gossip, juicy facts, etc. so the word has a loaded nuance. Department stores in Japan have grocery stores in the basements and many upper floors of lifestyle goods and clothing, so the slogan worked to encourage customers to get all their shopping done together.
Incidentally, the Delicious Life calligraphy scroll Woody Allen drew himself is still on display in Itoi’s office today, next to the “eat sleep play” calligraphy drawn by Yosui Inoue who starred in the Cefiro commercials (posted at start of article).
- 1984: “That’s great, Sacchan.”
- 1985: “Passion Power Plant”
- 1986: “Genroku Renaissance”
- 1987: “Not.” (In Japanese: Ja nai. Makes no sense either way…)
- 1988: “I want what I want.”
- 1989: “On-my-wayism”
- 1990: “Smells good.”
There are also several catchphrases and names that are famous for being written by Itoi, but on his Hobo Nichi homepage on July 10, 2007, Itoi wrote a couple paragraphs dispelling these myths. The following tag lines are regularly associated with Itoi, to the point that Japanese websites either cite Itoi as the creator, or they try to explain to people that Itoi is not the actual creator:
- “The 4,000 year old flavor of China” — Myojo Foods cup ramen
- “Love will save the world” — “24 Hour Television” subtitle on NTV
- “Humans and dragons were once as one.” — Tales from Earthsea
There are also widespread rumors in Japan that Shigesato Itoi is the one that named the Gameboy, Virtual Boy, and Nintendo 64. While he did name the Nintendo 64, Itoi mentions that he is not the one that named the other two.
Here is a translation of his rebuttal:
“When it comes to the internet, misunderstandings are often left undispelled. People accept things as true just because they read it online. Among these are catchphrases that are attributed to my name, even though I have no recollection of ever writing them. It may just be that I’m remembering it wrong, but it would be rude of me to claim someone else’s work as my own, so I’m going to rectify that.
First of all, I did work on 24 Hour Television, but I did not write its tagline, ‘Love will save the world’. I’m not sure, but it’s probably the work of the first producer. And I can’t swear by this, but I don’t think I’m the one that came up with ‘The 4,000 year old flavor of China’. I can’t say for sure, but I feel like it’s something that’s existed for a while…? And I didn’t write ‘Humans and Dragons were once as one’. I think that was Ghibli Studio’s Toshio Suzuki. And as far as the naming for the Game Boy and Virtual Boy, those weren’t me.”
So how about today? Does Itoi still do copywriting work for companies? Actually, the present situation for copywriting in Japan is vastly different from the distinct “copywriting boom” of the 80’s. At the start of the 80’s, when Itoi hit it big around the time of his “Delicious life.” campaign, the Japanese public was enamored with the concept of capturing an entire business philosophy into one tiny phrase. Copywriter was the new fashion title, and people couldn’t get enough of it. Advertisements were split into more sections than they probably even needed to be, with different people covering different parts of a single ad. Itoi was the frontrunner guitar man blasting his sweet solo of catchy tag lines, catching everyone’s eye as he stood next to the lead singer who modeled in these ads. What fueled this era of advertisements, of course, was the Japanese bubble economy. Once the bubble burst and the economy collapsed, the song was over, and last thing people were interested in were commercial advertisements.
In an August 2008 interview with Nikkei Business, the copywriter legend described his relationship with the business today.
Nikkei Business: That reminds me of the 1982 Seibu Department Store “Delicious life.” tagline. Speaking of which, is the Copywriter Shigesato Itoi still inside you somewhere?
NB: So you don’t like copywriting anymore?
Itoi: It’s not that. You just asked if that’s still inside me, and I said no. That part of me is completely gone.
NB: So if it’s gone, is there any feeling of contempt there?
Itoi: No. I’ve done that job for a long time, but that era is over. And I can’t just ignore that fact. Considering that I see my job as making other people happy, though, I think I’ve just been doing the same thing the entire time. Kind of like the difference between a performer singing on the radio or on television. Just as they are singing in either situation, I am trying to make others happy in either situation, so the roots of it haven’t changed. Making others happy through products of others, though, that’s over with.
NB: When do you think it ended?
Itoi: It was over before I started my Hobo Nichi website.
NB: Was there any specific catalyst?
Itoi: Probably the bubble’s collapse. After that, conversations sort of just wrapped up after hashing out the basics. In other words, no advertisement could outsell something with a cheap price. Advertisements didn’t mean anything anymore. And slashing prices didn’t take any special ingenuity—anybody could do it. So ads lost out to the idea of “cheap”, and I saw that it was time to move on to my next job. But that’s a story for another day.
So there you have it. The man, the myth, the legend. But don’t call him a copywriter.