Fukubukuro: Japanese Lucky Bags for the New Year

There are various customs that every culture adheres to based on different occasions. Probably one of the major occasion that each culture has its set of traditions that it follows is the celebration of New Years. One of the many cultures that follow a number of traditions during New Years is none other than the Japanese culture. New Year’s day is a special day in the country of Japan. Aside from it being considered as a holiday throughout the nation, there are several traditions that surround this special occasion. While the typical tradition for westerners is giving gifts on Christmas day, the Japanese do things a little differently by giving out fukubukuro to friends and relatives.

Lucky Bags for the New Year in Japan

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Translated to “lucky bag” or “mystery bag” in English, fukubukuro was a New Year custom in the Land of the Sun. These bags are generally sold at a discount of 50 percent or more of the original price of the items inside. As the translation indicates, the items inside the bag shall remain a mystery to the buyer until the receiver opens the said bag. The discounted rate of the bags is what attracts customers to visit the store and buy during the New Year. Through the years, fukubukuro has been a traditional and common custom among the Japanese people, with high anticipation as the New Year arrives.

The term “fukubukuro” is a combination of two Japanese words, namely, “fuku” and “fukuro.” The word “fuku” translates to “luck” or “good fortune” while the word “fukuro” translates to “bag.” The term “fukuro” was changed to “bukuro,” which is a phenomenon in the Japanese language known as rendaku. On the other hand, the term “fuku” was obtained from the Japanese saying, “There is fortune in leftovers.” These lucky bags are so popular that popular stores who sell these usually run out after its opening. Eager customers are willing to wait in long lines just to avail of these lucky bags.

This custom works great not only for customers who are getting items at a discounted rate but also for merchants selling these lucky bags. Typically, stores that offer these lucky bags use this as a way to sell off excess, as well as unwanted, items on their shelves from the previous year. This further serves one of the superstitions in Japan wherein they say that a person should start clean on New Years and discard of any trash from the previous year.

Fukubukuro come as sealed bags when they are sold in markets. While in recent years, there are some shops that reveal the items inside the bags to encourage customers to buy, most stores still keep the items inside a secret so as to remain true to the tradition. Certain stores that sell these lucky bags include Isetan, Kinokuniya, and even Starbucks. The items inside the bags vary with prices that are more expensive should they be bought individually.

While the tradition usually consists of material items inside goody bags, the craze for lucky bags has taken a level up through the years. Now, even fancy restaurants take part in this tradition. However, instead of material things inside the lucky bags, frozen or dried food items would be found inside. Other stores with different specialties include their items in the bags. Some notable ones include just books or concert tickets.

The Popularity of Fukubukuro in Japanese Culture

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There are many claims as to who conceptualized the idea of fukubukuro. Some claim that this idea was conceptualized by the predecessor of Ginza Matsuya Department Store. It was said that the idea was given birth during the late Meiji period. The concept grew popular and eventually spread on to other retailers.

Various stories suggest that the origin of this tradition dated back to a number of department stores, though the real origin is uncertain with so many claims. One of the famous claims is that the first fukubukuro was actually packaged at Echigoya, which many may know to be the predecessor of Mitsukoshi. It is said that these lucky bags began to be sold during the Edo period. Another claim to this story is by the predecessor of Daimaru.

Ultimately, whichever store it was that actually conceptualized the idea of fukubukuro, none of the stories suggest that these lucky bags were exclusively sold during New Years. However, the Daimaru claim suggests that selling these bags were dated on the month of October. It was during the Showa period that most retailers have incorporated this idea into their businesses, seeing how lucrative it is in the market.

The concept grew so popular that stores outside of Japan also got a whiff of this idea. A shopping center in Honolulu known as Ala Moana Center, as well as other stores, started to adopt this concept in the year 2004. Several Sanrio stores located in the United States also incorporated this idea in their businesses.

Because of the hype of this custom, planning for this event takes months. Hence, most stores plan the details of their fukubukuro months in advance. Details such as the items to be put inside and the price for the goody bag are discussed and planned even before the public starts thinking about Christmas season. For major department stores in Japan, they typically incorporate themes when it comes to their fukubukuro based on certain departments.

These lucky bags are also typically filled with things that have a relation to the kind of store that is selling the fukubukuro. This means that a tea store would most likely offer bags of tea in their fukubukuro as well as other items in relation to tea such as teacups. More importantly, these lucky bags would contain items that are deemed to be usable to customers.

Several stores also include random items in their fukubukuro. These random items serve as extra pieces that are seen as prizes. These things include expensive bags that may amount to tens of millions of yen. Others include getaway tickets, expensive fur coats for the cold season, and vouchers that can be used in expensive electronics stores.

This concept is what encourages buyers to shop at these stores and take chance to win these expensive items. It is due to these extra and random expensive things that the fukubukuro is known as “lucky bags,” because the lucky buyers get to have these gifts. Given that it is also given during New Year’s, it is like starting the New Year lucky.

By Nesnad (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As for the real and lucky fukubukuro, these bags are sold at different prices, depending on the items contained inside the bags. Typically, these lucky bags have prices that range from a few hundred to about 10,000 yen, which is equivalent to about 1-100 US dollars. However, there are really some expensive fukubukuro out there just because of how expensive the items are inside.

A Ginza Jewelry store sold fukubukuro at a price of 200.6 million yen, which is equivalent to about 1.7 million US dollars in the year 2006. The price is quite understandable given the type of material inside the bag as well as the original price. Another expensive fukubukuro was sold at Mitsukoshi for a price of 150 million yen per piece, which was equivalent to about 1.2 million US dollars.

Due to the popularity and high demand for fukubukuro, buyers can get pretty intense during the New Years. Long lines are to be expected outside the stores even before opening time. Some people liken this experience to war zones, as some people even use their elbows to get ahead and grab those lucky bags from the shelves. Probably the most popular stores that sell these lucky bags fast like hot cakes would be the fancy department stores and electronic stores. This is because their fukubukuro are known to be filled with nothing but items of great value.

One of the concerns of getting fukubukuro is getting an unwanted item or a piece of clothing that does not match one’s size. Thankfully, there is such a thing as fukubukuro item swapping. There are some people who swap their items amongst friends who also got something that they did not like. A more lucrative move would be selling these unwanted items on websites such as Yahoo Auction. There are bargains happening during these later sales; hence, people who were not lucky enough to get a fukubukuro bag may still get these fukubukuro contents at a lower price online.

Tips in Giving Fukubukuro This 2017 and 2018

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New Years is fast-approaching and that means that the season of buying fukubukuro is just around the corner. In order to get the best experience in obtaining fukubukuro, here are some tips that may help. The first tip would be not to open the bag in the first place. The air of mystery that surrounds fukubukuro may very well tempt people to take a peek. However, this is considered impolite. Furthermore, taking a peek just disregards the whole idea of people just being lucky to get such unknown goodies in the first place.

The second tip would be to consider the prices of the fukubukuro. Some people may be tempted to get the cheapest fukubukuro with the notion that even the cheap ones might have the most expensive item. However, merchants do think about pricing and consider this in putting items in the lucky bags. Hence, the more expensive the bag is, the more likely that the fukubukuro contains more than one expensive item. 

The third tip would be where to get the best fukubukuro snacks. Various restaurants these days also incorporate the concept of fukubukuro and sell these lucky bags with their own items. Ginza is a great place to go for a shopping spree of any kind of fukubukuro; however, it also serves as a great location for shoppers to get their hands on fukubukuro that contains high-end okashi.

The fourth tip is to know that clothing brands that are high-end usually also have a high budget during the season of NewYears. Hence, this would probably be the best time to purchase business suits, which are known to be expensive on any regular day. These suits are sold at a cheaper price when contained inside fukubukuro during this season. Big clothing brands such as Hugo Boss and Armani participate in these events, with their bags costing from 10,000 yen to 50,000 yen each.

The most important tip that one can give to shopper of fukubukuro is to go early. Fukubukuro is a really huge event in the country with people lining up the side of the stores. Upon knowing the goodies inside these lucky bags, fukubukuro are sure to sell out fast. Hence, if one has a product or a specific brand in time, it is important to know where to get it and to go there early. This is expecially on point in stores in Tokyo.

The last tip would be to still take a look around the shop even after getting fukubukuro. A lot of people are focused on just the fukubukuro without noticing that other items in the store are also sold at a discounted rate. Discounts can range from 30 percent to 70 percent. Even without the lucky bags, these discounted items might as well have been included in the fukubukuro due to its heavy discounts.

Buying These Lucky Bags in Store and Online

Locals typically buy these lucky bags in store and fall in a long line. However, there are now some shops in Japan that offer fukubukuro online. Shoppers are able to reserve these bags in advance so they no longer have to go early and fall in line. While this may be more convenient with all things considered, many people still prefer to go to the stores as it is part of the fukubukuro experience. Be part of the tradition of giving red apple-colored bags or boxes to loved ones on New Years.