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The Craft behind ‘My Japan Railway’ and the emotional infrastructure of Japanese trains, stamps, and good design

TOKYO, JAPAN — One of the biggest campaigns to come out of the Asia Pacific region this awards season is “My Japan Railway” by Dentsu Inc. With multiple Grande trophies across the biggest shows in advertising, the design and branding campaign has emerged as one of, if not the, work that everyone knows — a visual piece that is not only eye-catching, but also effective in rallying an audience behind a 150-year old brand. 

Following a remarkable run from Cannes Lions 2023 to D&AD 2024, we go back to an exclusive interview with Dentsu Inc. Executive Creative Director Yoshihiro Yagi and Copywriter Mariko Fukuoka, who the adobo Magazine team caught up with in the midst of their successful ADFEST 2024 season. Unbeknownst to both the adobo and Dentsu teams, the conversation preluded months of more back-to-back wins for the campaign, further cementing its victory lap.

In our conversation with Yoshi and Mariko, the duo delved deeper into the brief from Japan Railway Group, working with six clients, and the personal experiences that fueled this incredibly complex and intensive undertaking.


The brief: Celebrating 150 years of tradition

Dentsu Inc. has had a long client-agency relationship with East Japan Railway and Central Japan Railway prior to this campaign. But to fully celebrate their milestone, the agency had to extend its services to the whole JR Group, comprising of six individual companies. The brief was simple enough: create a logo for the Japan Railway Group’s 150th anniversary. The objective that the agency sought out was two-fold, as its award-winning case study presented: First, “maximize interest in domestic travel that had grown during the pandemic and encourage people to visit Japan’s scenic attractions;” and second, “to inject an element of fun into rail travel and engage people in an interactive activity that enabled them to create their own ‘My Japan Railway.’”

CamSpo My Japan Railway Exclusive Interview 2024 INSERT 1

“But of course, we didn’t stop,” Mariko started. “We delved deeper on why the railways exist. Over the past 150 years, the Japanese railway has developed, and we wanted to connect people and railway once again. So we wanted to find ways to [present] the railway in a more personal context, because this is an ‘emotional infrastructure.’”

As Yoshi put it, “The role of design is to generate a good question, and come up with better answers. In order to do so, we need to understand the habits of humans.” 

What came out of it was an incredibly detailed project that replicated a scavenger hunt, playing into Japan’s love for stamps and its historic significance in Japanese culture. The team turned stamp collection into a digital adventure with virtual stamps designed to showcase the Group’s six colors and reflect the country’s traditional woodblock style. This effectively brought to life the long history of travel scrapbooking in the country, while making it all the more personal through smart phones. 

“The train station and railway are just [physical] infrastructure for most people, but we wanted to make it more personal with the smart phone — the most personal thing for people today. Users can personalize their stamps by adjusting the ‘stamping force’ [and changing the opacity of the stamp] depending on how long they scan the code. We can also see the time they visited the station, and how many other people have collected the stamp. This creates a feeling of shared experiences with other travellers,” Mariko explained. 

The brief was given in November 2022 and launched in March 2023, with 900 digital stamps currently out and more on the way — extending the one-year project to a three-year contract with more assets moving forward. “I think I will be an old man before [we] complete all 6,000 train stations,” Yoshi joked. 

“We made 300 stamps in three months, and after that we added more,” Mariko shared. The process was long and challenging, as Dentsu had to reach an approved consensus among all six companies before finalizing the designs. It’s this dedication to detail and excellence that created such a memorable and effective piece of design and branding work. 

My Japan Railway: An adventure led through connection and emotion

On top of the campaign playing on such an integral part of Japanese culture, it’s the design aspect of “My Japan Railway” that really drew people in, simply because the stamps were so visually appealing in themselves that train-riders naturally wanted to see more and, ultimately, collect more. And with good design and captivating visuals already so ingrained in people’s day-to-day experiences in Japan, the campaign fit right in — seamlessly modernizing an over century-old brand without straying away from tradition and identity. 

Furthermore, what really takes the campaign to the next level is that, while it builds on the functionality of Japanese trains and the cultural relevance of stamp collection, it also zooms in on the so-called “little” details that passengers see everyday, but might take for granted. These are the train workers who make sure everything’s in top shape and that every passenger has an excellent experience; the items necessary to ensure trains are safe and on-time; and the unique cultural elements that characterize each individual station. 

“This is not just about creating a stamp. This is about rebranding Japan. And also I think, each station has a different characteristic that even Japanese people don’t know. So whenever we travel, we don’t know what culture they have. That’s why the train travel became more. Even us who live there, we don’t know the culture or history of [these stations],” Mariko shared.  

To put it simply, “My Japan Railway” is a celebration of all the parts that make a whole; a colorful appreciation of every worker, destination, train ride view, and experience that make up the collective Japan Railway story. A work of “national pride,” as the duo put it.

“To us, rich and luxury is not about premium seats. It’s about experiencing the top itself,” Yoshi noted, underlining that everything about the Japan Railway system contributes to the premium experience it offers. 

Train rides are very visual trips to begin with, with scenic views framed with large windows and passengers having nowhere else to look but the outside. For many tourists, it’s one of the most beautiful ways to take in a new city and country — a mark of a new adventure made possible through railroad tracks and large moving metal cars. 

“One of our account team members is a train geek, and during our meetings someone said that it takes five and a half hours to travel to Hokkaido by train. And I thought it would be much easier to fly than to take the train, because it would just take one hour. But our account member said ‘No way! That’s the best train experience.’ From hearing that, I felt that that was what happiness looks like; it’s not just about the destination,” Mariko recalled. 

“From just function to emotion. We call that ‘emotional infrastructure,’” Yoshi added. 

The power of Design

With “My Japan Railway” recognized as an award-winning Design project, we asked Yoshi what, for him, good design means. Initially, he was stumped, noting that the definition of design is evolving as days pass, and it’s changing for him as well. After a few minutes gathering his thoughts, he shared: “In my perspective, it is often said that art is self-expression, and design is objective art. I feel that the times call for brand art projects so there’s a sense that we are writing or doing the brand’s ads [as art]. Art direction does not only mean expression, but how the brand exists, and [treating] the brand itself as an artist.” 

Moreover, with this specific campaign taking in such a cultural and functional object and turning it into something deeply personal, Yoshi also noted the different stories customers have with the brand, and how it contributes to the overall brand value: “Normally you would think that the brand value is just one value that the brand [dictates]. But I believe that there are many values from each customer. The number of customers equal the value of the brand. There’s a different value for each customer because everyone has a different experience with the brand,” he stressed. 

This is beautifully captured in “My Japan Railway,” with each passenger having a unique stamp per station, and a documentation of exactly when and where they got it — a virtual reminder of their own stories and their own experiences in the train at that precise moment. 

True enough, it’s good design that got people — Japanese and foreigners alike — to engage with the campaign and collect their digital stamps, effectively growing the reach and impact of Japan Railway Group’s 150th anniversary even beyond its original goal of mere celebration. 

The complete breakdown (as of this writing) is as follows: 

Dentsu won multiple awards for “My Japan Railway” including a grand total of 12 Grand Prix trophies from 2023 to 2024 award seasons, and one very rare Black Pencil from D&AD 2024.

Cannes Lions 2023: 

  • Industry Craft — Grand Prix
  • Design: Brand Collateral — Gold
  • Industry Craft: Brand & Communications Design — Gold
  • Direct: Art Direction/Design — Shortlist
  • Design: Digital Installations & Events — Shortlist

London International Awards 2023:

  • Design — Grand Prix
  • Design: Art Direction Campaign — Gold
  • Design: Use of Illustration Campaign — Gold

Spikes 2024:

  • Digital Craft — Grand Prix
  • Direct — Grand Prix 
  • Industry Craft — Grand Prix
  • Brand Experience & Activation — Silver
  • Design — Silver
  • Design — Shortlist

ADFEST 2024:

  • Brand Experience — Grand Prix
  • Design — Grand Prix
  • Digital Craft — Grand Prix
  • Lotus Roots — Grand Prix
  • Design — Gold
  • Direct — Gold
  • Mobile — Gold
  • Print & Outdoor Craft — Gold
  • Media — Shortlist

Clio Awards 2024:

  • Design: Direct Marketing — Grand Prix
  • Design Craft: Illustration — Gold

ADC 2024:

  • Illustration — Best of Illustration
  • Illustration: Book – single — Gold
  • Illustration: Branded identity – series — Gold
  • Brand / Communication Design Branding: Branding Systems / Identities — Gold
  • Brand / Communication: Promotional – Wildcard — Gold
  • Interactive: Digital Craft – Art Direction — Gold

One Show 2024:

  • Design — Best of Design
  • Design: Craft – Art Direction — Gold
  • Design: Promotional – Physical Items — Gold
  • Print & Promotional: Craft – Art Direction — Gold
  • Design: Out of Home – Brand Installations — Silver
  • Experiential & Immersive: Craft – Art Direction — Bronze
  • Interactive & Mobile Craft: Visual Craft – Art Direction — Bronze
  • Direct Marketing: Craft – Art Direction — Merit
  • Out of Home: Experiential & Installations – Experiential & Immersive — Merit

D&AD 2024:

  • Art Direction: Integrated — Black Pencil
  • Illustration: Integrated — Yellow Pencil
  • Art Direction: Direct — Graphite Pencil
  • Branding: Digital — Graphite Pencil
  • Digital Design: Digital Experiences — Wood Pencil
  • Graphic Design: Integrated — Wood Pencil
  • Digital & Social: Physical & Digital — Shortlist
  • Graphic Design: Websites & Apps — Shortlist
  • Typography: Integrated — Shortlist

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