Whether you need to light up or clean up, guerrilla marketing in Japan is there to help.

Have you ever been at a restaurant or a rest stop somewhere, urgently dancing the gotta-pee-jig, but the bathrooms are all out of toilet paper? Such desperate times call for desperate measures, including asking a neighbour, stall-jumping or airdrying—unless, of course, you’re in Japan. Your standard Japanese public restroom comes entirely without toilet paper or paper towels, but if this seems like cruel and unusual punishment, not to fear. Take a stroll through any busy metropolis and you’ll find a slew of part-time youngsters handing out cute, pocket-sized packets of free tissue paper emblazoned with advertisements for everything from personal loans to karaoke. This form of guerrilla advertising (low-cost, creative marketing) has been popular in Japan since the 1960s. Up until then, small-time advertising was primarily done through matchboxes, which were freebies provided by local restaurants and bars. Salarymen would use these matches to smoke cigarettes, and housewives would use them in the kitchen. Clever businesses managed to get exposure by adding their names to a product customers already used. But in the 1960s, with the proliferation of lighters, matchboxes went by the wayside, and tissue packets quickly swooped in to take their place. Soon all kinds of companies began to put their names on tissue packets, realizing that everybody needs to blow their nose and use the loo.

Since then, tissue packet advertising has spread to every kind of business conceivable. The industry now produces somewhere around 4 billion tissue packets a year. Unlike with flyers or brochures, consumers are less likely to throw these packets away because they serve a practical purpose. In a recent survey of over 100,000 people, over three-quarters said that they accept packets of free tissues. Of course, accepting free and useful stuff is no guarantee that consumers will look at the packaging, so many businesses provide incentive by including discount coupons inside. And some kind-hearted consumers look at the packets not just out of self- interest, but because they were offered something for free and felt obliged to at least glance at the advertisement. But that’s not all. Savvy companies go even further by handing out the packets selectively, offering ads for places like hair salons to women and “massage parlours” to men.

Over the past decade, this form of guerrilla advertising has become common in the West too, with many companies giving out promotional water bottles, pens, tote bags and so on. These new promotional materials have appeared in Japan as well, so tissue packet advertising has seen a dip in popularity in recent years, but it remains a mainstay in any big city in Japan. For now, no trip to Japan is complete without gathering a small mountain of cute tissue packs.

Know your tissue etiquette


Wherever you go in Japan, don’t run from the nice men and women with the tissue packs.

Here are some great ways to use your tissues when you’re on the move:


DO use them in many ways

These multi-purpose babies are great for your hands, nose and bum!


Do NOT be a hog

Don’t mob your tissue person for their entire bag. Pocket one and keep moving.


DO let others enjoy these freebies

Don’t cut people off or take tissues that were meant for someone else.

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe