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How the bullet train romanced Christmas

by Lauren Stoeckel

4 min read

Celebrating a classic from Japan

If you’ve ever spent Christmas in Japan or among Japanese friends, you might sum up the experience as KFC, strawberry shortcake or having to work (yes, Christmas is a regular workday in Japan).  

But did you know Christmas Eve is also up there with Valentine’s Day as one of the most romantic date nights of the year? And that, in part, is thanks to this iconic ad from Japan Rail (JR Tokai).

A Christmas gift to the nation

Much like John Lewis years later (albeit a bit more short-lived), the JR Xmas Express ads became a fixture of the holiday season, recreating the magic with new protagonists, new Christmas Eve scenarios and the same city pop track four more times. While many years have since passed, these ads remain a cultural touchpoint and have even been recreated in anime.

Back in the eighties, JR Tokai observed that Christmas in Japan lacked local meaning – despite adopted/adapted western traditions like KFC, the nearest thing to turkey. So as they briefed in their first holiday ad, following a year of hard work building awareness and consideration for the recently privatised service, they saw an opportunity to insert their brand into culture. And like any ambitious brand, they went for it. 

There are other days for celebrating love in Japan. On Valentine’s Day, women profess it. On White Day, a month later, men requite it. But on Christmas Eve, they finally celebrate it as a couple.

Yes, not only did JR Tokai have the audacity to try defining the meaning of Christmas, but they would also end up making it the most romantic time of the year. 

What gave them the confidence to try? More importantly, how did they pull it off?

The bullet train’s bulletproof brand

During peak periods on the Tokaido Shinkansen, a bullet train leaves every three to six minutes, with an average pre-pandemic delay of twelve seconds. There’s been no accidents causing fatalities over sixty years of operations. For a transport brand, there’s arguably nothing more important than being reliable. And if there’s one thing that JR has always been able to claim, it’s that it’s reliable.

In 1988, JR Tokai had spent a whole year proving its reliability and earning trust. When Christmas came, it was time to cash in. To credibly recommend that there’s no better way to celebrate than to travel to those you care about the most – on an occasion where reliability is the difference between the end of the year and the end of the world. And so, the bullet train glides into frame: a cameo in this love story but the real star of the show.

Make Christmas the cherry on top of a good year

There’s a lesson in this for some of our Australian brands.

After a tough year, and a year in which some of our biggest brands have been less than reliable for Australians, it seems like Christmas is a time for the same brands to try to wipe the slate clean.  

A brand like JR Tokai tells us that they have it back to front.

For their Christmas ad extravaganzas to truly be effective, brands need to lay the groundwork throughout the year. They shouldn’t be scrounging for goodwill at Christmas – instead, it should be a time to solidify the gains they’ve made over the whole year. 

As we marketing folk see the year off, it’s time to take stock of our accomplishments and pause in pride. But as we look optimistically ahead to 2024 and make our new year brand resolutions, let’s strive to make our brands more than fair-weather friends, so come next Christmas, we may have the same opportunity JR Tokai had.


Want to add this song to your Christmas playlist? Here it is, Christmas Eve by Yamashita Tatsuro. Merii Kurisumasu!

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Lauren Stoeckel

→ As a strategist, Lauren has honed and grown her craft across multiple network agencies, leading the strategic charge on brands such as Monash University, Public Transport Victoria, Defence Force Recruiting, Bonds and 7-Eleven. An advocate of an audience-first approach, Lauren enjoys the pursuit of new insight and counts brand and comms strategy, consulting, and understanding data among her strategic skills.

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