Archive for January, 2010

“Ryomaden” romanticizes (and monetizes) history

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Every year NHK, Japan’s broadcasting behemoth, pours money into a year-long historical television series known as the “taiga drama.” The subject this year is Sakamoto Ryoma,  a 19th-century samurai often credited with bringing Japan into the modern age. History often portrays Sakamoto not only as a vital component in the country’s unification, but also as a “Renaissance Samurai,” a forward thinker who embraced new inventions (Smith & Wesson pistols, western-style boots) and new ideas (industrialization, the democratic process). By the end of the year, his image will be burnished even further, since the series’ starring role is being played by Masaharu Fukuyama, a handsome and extremely popular celebrity known for his clean-cut image.

Pairing Fukuyama with Sakamoto will prove to be a lucrative mix, and many in the tourism and entertainment industries have been prepping for a windfall of Ryoma-related commerce. The official Sakamoto Memorial Museum in his native Kochi prefecture has been inundated with hundreds of licensing requests, and regional tourism agencies have projected over 20,000 fans signing up for package tours of famous sites from his life. Telecommunications powerhouse, Softbank, recently used Sakamoto imagery in their very popular commercial series (granted, Softbank’s been a fan for years). And let’s not even get started on the video games, theme restaurants and custom-made boots that already trade on his name.

Yes, “Ryomaden” will help push 2009’s “samurai boom” into the next decade. From undergarments to soda to high-street fashion houses, echoes of Japan’s feudal past continue to convince a large – and increasingly female – audience to open their wallets. Does this stem from a national longing for heroes, a reaction to Japan’s evolving gender identity issues or something else? Hard to say, but at this pace we should expect boy bands sporting chonmage by summertime.

Gachapon grows up

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Customized machine sells knitted broaches

A customized machine selling knitted broaches in Koenji

While adults have been collecting gachapon for some time now, the contents of these brightly colored plastic capsules have remained the preserve of the kidult: figures molded into the likeness of characters from anime, or novelty toys like the hugely popular curly piles of plastic poop. But some stores are now taking gachapon machines and customizing them to contain tiny objects that would appeal to a rather more mature audience.

Just such a machine, located outside a store deep in the heart of Tokyo’s book-selling area of Jinbocho, is selling miniature books of poetry, photography or illustrations printed on traditional Japanese paper. The books sold at the store have proved so popular that people are now queuing up to buy them. Of course, as with all gachapon machines, whether they get the tiny tome they were after is down to luck; those disappointed aren’t allowed another go but have to ask around if anyone else is willing to swap. It’s not just literature that’s proving popular, the gachapon machine pictured at the right was spotted in Koenji and contains knitted broaches that might appeal to the arty student population of the area.

Yujin Co are known for their creative toys

Yujin Co. are known for their creative toys

Takara Tomy, a leading producer of gachapon, is keen to show that gachapon is a form of art, albeit of the pop variety. Their Time Capsule range is dubbed “art capsule toy product” and designed by a subsidiary of creative boffins at Yujin Co. They were the brains behind the smiley plastic poop that has become ubiquitous in many a gachapon collection, as well as the YMCK key chains that depict the 8-bit pop band in pixelated plastic form. Cashing in on the vinyl toy boom they have collaborated with vinyl toy-maker Devilrobots to produce a collectable evirob range and with TOUMA to make the Knuckle Bear range. Most recently in December they teamed up with apparel maker Edition to produce two specially designed “Korejiya-nai!” (It’s Not This!) robots.

Taking advantage of the collectible nature of these miniature toys, the future for Tomy’s Time Capsule toys looks to be in lucrative collaborations with trendy labels. But I’m hoping to see more boutique stores appropriate gachapon for themselves. Have you seen any unique gachapon machines? Let us know.

Fukubukoro hunting tamed by the Internet

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Fukubukuro on sale outside a pharmacy

Fukubukuro on sale outside a pharmacy

The start of January ushers in the season of fukubukuro madness. A fukubukuro is a sealed paper bag that contains heavily discounted items that are, depending on your perspective, either exciting and exclusive goodies or junk the store wants to get rid of. Traditionally when the fukubukuro are released pandemonium ensues and normally polite Japanese shoppers lose all decorum in their scramble to get their mitts on the limited stock of bags. So in order to avert these ugly scenes, department stores have begun selling fukubukuro over the Internet, which makes sense if you’re buying blind. Applicants are entered into a lottery which is a lot fairer than the law of the jungle that reigns on the shop floor.

According to Time Out Tokyo, some stores embraced the konkatsu (marriage hunting) trend by tailoring their bags to help women find their perfect mate. Ginza Mitsukoshi were selling konkatsu bags for women at ¥21,000 that contained a swanky outfit and coupons for etiquette lessons. Printemps Ginza had a funnier take on the konkatsu theme, by making two separate konkatsu bags: one for women who want to catch that elusive creature, the herbivorous man (shoushoku-kei) and one for women aiming at a “nikushoku-kei” (carnivorous man). The first contains cooking utensils for making salads and the second for making meat dishes, these bags were priced from ¥3,100 to ¥10,500.

Continue reading about fukubukuro →

Best of luck in the year of the tiger

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Happy Tiger Year (collage courtesy by Yuri Suzuki)

Happy Tiger Year (collage courtesy by Yuri Suzuki)

With JAL on the rocks and Wendy’s closed for good, it might seem that 2010 has not had an auspicious start. But instead of kicking themselves, some Japanese businesses have decided to kick-start the new year of commerce with a slew of inventive giveaways and competitions.

Sapporo’s nationwide janken (rock, scissors, paper) competition, for example, had a first prize of ¥10 million (roughly $100,000), with 100,000 cases of Sapporo beer available for runners-up. Janken is not only popular with children in Japan, it’s also a popular game with adults and in fact started out as a drinking game. If you’d like to try your hand at an adult janken competition, Taiko Chaya, an izakaya in Tokyo has nightly janken tournaments open to all customers.

Sapporo’s competition closed Jan. 3, but there are other enticing offers still available. Toho Cinemas have dreamed up a great way to make the best use of your nengajo (New Year’s postcards). Most nengajo come printed with numbers that qualify recipients for a  national lottery. The winning numbers are announced on Jan. 24.  If you happen to have nengajo with the last digits of either 1 or 4,  you can watch any movie at Toho Cinemas between Jan. 9 and Feb. 28 for the bargain price of ¥1,000 (but viewing 3-D movies will cost you an extra ¥300).

If you’re in a mood for a burger after your discount movie, then head to Lotteria. Selected set meals come with the opportunity to enter their New Year’s competition. Lucky winners will get the price of their entire meal refunded; those not so lucky get a deduction of ¥100 or ¥50. There’s also a great booby prize of a kimchee shake for those who draw the short straw. Kimchee is spicy Korean dish that is popular in Japan but it’s hard to imagine anyone actually enjoying it in a creamy liquid form. Or perhaps you would, if you’re the masochistic type.


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