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Discover the Wonderful World Of Japan’s Fukubukuro, AKA, The Lucky Bag

by Rudy Sanchez on 10/11/2022 | 3 Minute Read

The day after Thanksgiving is known in the retail world as Black Friday, marking the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season. 

Now more of an online affair, in previous years, shoppers looking to snag the 1-day only bargains would line up hours before opening, sometimes overnight. Black Friday would also become infamous for becoming a violent affair, complete with the trampling of the elderly, fatal shoot-outs at the register, and, in general, ruining the holiday season over flat-screen TVs with hospital visits and court dates.

The Japanese have a different big shopping day tradition that combines deals and surprises and is void of American-style, frenzied retail barbarity. Fukubukuro, or lucky bag, is an annual New Year’s shopping tradition where merchants offer grab bags filled with goods worth more than the ticket price, and in some cases, unique, expensive items get dropped into some bags

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Fukubukuro’s origins are unclear. Some trace it back to the Edo period (1603-1867) when the Daimaru department store’s predecessor offered bags with extra items at a discount and put golden charms in some of the bags. Others attribute the start of the custom to different department stores, including Matsuya in 1907 and Matsuzakaya in 1911. While the precise origins are unknown, the fukubukuro tradition had become popular by the 1920s, remaining a New Year's staple today.

Some posit that fukubukuro started as a way for shops to sell off unwanted inventory at the start of the New Year. The notion is not without merit, as one of the many traditions surrounding New Year’s in Japan is Susuharai or “soot sweeping.” Susuharai involves deep cleaning, replacing worn, broken, or missing items, and discarding unwanted things. The purpose is to eliminate bad luck and welcome a more fortuitous year; for shopkeepers, that would also involve pushing out old inventory that didn’t sell before the new year.

Editorial photograph
Editorial photograph

Today, however, fukubukuro is more of an opportunity for brands to engage with their fans. Many items in lucky bags are made especially for the occasion and planned months ahead. Food brands and restaurants like Mr. Donut often include vouchers that shoppers can redeem later. Like Black Friday, New Year marks the start of a larger shopping season, and stores will also have additional sales besides the lucky bags to entice customers into spending money.

Almost every major brand offers a fukubukuro. Starbucks is one of the most popular lucky bags, and in 2022 included a smaller bag inside of the typical tote bag incorporated with most fukubukuro, bags of coffee, a handful of coupons, and several tumblers. As one would expect, Sanrio goes hard in the most adorable way with its fukubukuro offerings, including plenty of cute, soft, and squishy items. For 2022, McDonald’s collaborated with bag brand Manhattan Portage for a lucky bag that included a cooler lunch tote, tumbler, light-up french fries, and coupons worth more than the fukubukuro itself.

Many firms create branded totes to serve as the bag for their fukubukuro. Usually, these fukubukuro tote bags get made from durable materials like canvas, ideal for carrying groceries and other items. The reusability of these lucky bags is incredibly convenient now that Japan has a mandatory fee for single-use plastic bags.

What may have started as a way to sell off old inventory or encourage shoppers to visit with deals and surprises, the offering of fukubukuro, or lucky bags, by stores and brands is now more of a way to connect with fans on New Year with yearly, exclusive items. Not only do customers get a good value from the lucky bag haul, but brands also have a way to bring good luck to patrons at the beginning of the year, with the hope that it will encourage customers to continue patronizing them throughout the rest of the year.

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