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Japanese toycos forgo the cutting edge in favor of classic toys at the Tokyo Toy Show

Responding to a slight drop in Japanese toy sales from US$5.76 billion in 2000 to US$5.73 billion last year (a blip that stems from a slightly weakened economy and lower birthrate), the country's toy kings are going back to basics. Like their U.S. brethren, high-tech high flyers like Bandai, Konami and Takara are turning away from high-priced digitoys to offer new SKUs based on classic toys and entertainment properties with existing consumer equity. That much was readily evident at Tokyo Toy Show 2002, held last month at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center.
June 1, 2002

Responding to a slight drop in Japanese toy sales from US$5.76 billion in 2000 to US$5.73 billion last year (a blip that stems from a slightly weakened economy and lower birthrate), the country’s toy kings are going back to basics. Like their U.S. brethren, high-tech high flyers like Bandai, Konami and Takara are turning away from high-priced digitoys to offer new SKUs based on classic toys and entertainment properties with existing consumer equity. That much was readily evident at Tokyo Toy Show 2002, held last month at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center.

Still the largest industry event of its kind in Japan, the show was a much smaller affair than in previous years. Only 157 toycos exhibited, which was well below last year’s count of 180, and it stands to shrink even more. Starting in 2003, event organizer the Japan Toy Association plans to split up the consumer and industry components of the show and hold them in different venues at different times of the year.

Though the mood at the 2002 show was somewhat low-key compared to previous years, it was not completely devoid of buzz. Announced on the eve of the event, news of a major alliance dubbed the Toy Dream Project garnered a lot of attention. The unprecedented deal will see Tomy, Bandai, Takara and Epoch jointly develop versions of classic Japanese toys, which will then be marketed through Toycard Co. The firm will sell coupons for the toys to consumers through a variety of retail channels that don’t normally carry toys (including post offices and convenience stores).

Designed primarily to help boost the toyco quartet’s sales, the hope is that the initiative will also make it easier for grandparents and parents to buy gifts for children without actually having to enter a toy store, says Takara spokesperson Norio Suzuki. Coupon holders will be able to cash them in for toys at participating bricks-and-mortar and on-line retailers. As per the alliance, which is projected to generate US$1.6 million in year one, the four companies plan to release 15 products a year, starting with a five-item line in September that will include a special-edition model from the mechanical toy car line ChoroQ and a wooden house for popular kids show character Hamtaro the hamster.

Other strategies for effecting a toy sale bounceback that stood out at the market included putting new twists on traditional Japanese games. To wit: Konami was busy pushing Menko Stadium, a new version of Menko, the popular Japanese game in which players whack their cards down on the ground in an effort to flip their opponents’ cards over. Released last fall for kids six and up, the plastic stadium comes with a flat, clean playing surface and plastic cards.

Also in the retro toy category is Tomy’s Shatekingu, a plug-and-play TV game released earlier this year that lets players use a controller shaped like a traditional Japanese bamboo pea-shooter to take out on-screen targets. With the ink still wet on its licensing deal with Lucasfilm, Tomy was showing its entire range of Star Wars figures and vehicles. This month, the toyco plans to roll the toys out with Hasbro-produced Star Wars items (which it also distributes) in advance of the Japanese theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones in July. Tomy also added new models to its successful Plarail electric train line for kids ages four to eight, including a new SKU with a built-in camera. Footage captured from the moving locomotive can be broadcast to a nearby TV, giving kids a train’s eye view of the action.

Finally, Tomy unveiled a full range of items–cooking sets, maracas and other musical instruments–tied to Mirumo, a character from Shogakukan Productions’ new animated show Wagamama Mirumo de Pon! (Selfish Fairy Mirumo). Geared to teens and tweens, Mirumo debuted last April on TV Tokyo and follows the travails of a selfish blond fairy who enters the world of humans and is befriended by a young schoolgirl.

Over at Takara’s booth, the center of attention was a huge display devoted to the company’s Licca doll (Japan’s answer to Barbie), which is celebrating its 35th birthday this year. Among the new Licca products is a series of 11-inch Pop Star Theme dolls decked out in threads that resemble the fashions of contemporary Japanese pop stars. Takara also showed a commemorative US$1-million Diamond Licca doll, festooned with the precious gems.

The company’s boy-skewing hit from 2001, Beyblade, continued to be a hot topic of discussion among buyers this year. Takara, which releases four or five tops every month, showed new items tied to the second installment of episodes in the series from Shogakukan that’s airing on TV Tokyo Channel 12. The new line of tops and battlefield arenas will have built-in magnets that cause the tops to make sharp, unexpected movements during gameplay.

Adding to its micro RC racer series digiQ, which has sold over a million units since its release in October, Takara previewed new IR remote-controlled items Combat digiQ (a tank), digiQ Train (a train set) and Divergear (a submarine that works in the water), all of which will hit shelves later this year.

The company also launched some new TV games with controllers modeled on traditional Japanese implements. Leading that line is Zubazuba Blade (US$60), an IR Samurai sword-shaped controller that communicates with a console connected to the TV, enabling kids to battle Samurai-style against a lineup of villains including ninjas and wild boars.

Konami stacked its deck of successful card games with Yu-Gi-Oh! spin-off game DungeonDice Monsters, in which players battle inhospitable denizens on their way through a dungeon maze. Also joining the line are Prince of Tennis, the baseball-themed Prime Line, and Hikaru no Go (based on Japan’s traditional checkers-like board game Go). All of the games (US$1.60 each) will hit retail this fall.

Other new items from Konami include IR games Slash Shot and Cyber Knuckle (US$50 each). Slash Shot comes with a headset and IR gun that consumers can use to shoot a little skittering ‘alien pod’ target. Meanwhile, boxing game Cyber Knuckle has headgear and boxing gloves with sensors that indicate when you land a blow on your opponent. Both games are due out in November and target consumers ages six and up.

Following the breakout success of karaoke-themed toys in 2001, Sega Toys decided to weigh in on the category–with a cellular twist. Released last month, Moba Kara allows users to sing karaoke songs via a microphone unit that hooks up to their cell phones. Users download the karaoke music from a Sega website onto their cell, and then sing into the Moba Kara microphone. The unit then broadcasts both voice and music to a nearby FM receiver that’s tuned into the correct frequency. The lyrics and song menu can be read off the telephone’s screen. Currently, Moba Kara (US$25) will only work on Internet-enabled i-Mode phones.

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