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Going Japanese: Trends in Consumerism

Japanese shopping street

Japanese shopping street

What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Probably a diverse mix of images: traditional Geishas, cherry blossom and tea ceremonies alongside humanoid robots, Anime and Manga, ultra-trendy urbanites, high-speed trains and high-tech consumerism, obviously.

No? Just the Tsunami? Time to look more closely.

History is an interesting phenomena, especially when you use it to track and predict future trends, whether financial, economic or cultural. One of the long established patterns in global history is that of the culture and developments of one part of human culture leading the other. One of these is the pattern of west leading east for 900 years and then it changing over so east leads west. At the moment the balance has just shifted and east is beginning to lead west.

So whatever is the latest must-have in Japan now, you can expect to find it, or a Europeanised variant, in a shop near you soon. And this isn’t just about the products, it’s also true of retail experiences and technology trends. Consequently a quick glance at Japan today could well offer us a window into our own future, so let’s take a peek…

Addicted to mobile

The mobile phone has become ubiquitous across the western world and we are all familiar with the incessant arrival of new functions and features: picture messaging, 3G, mobile Internet and mobile gaming, to name a few. But are you aware that these new advances typically start in Japan, where the youth are very responsive to mobile advances, enabling the operators to test and embed them here first.

Taking pictures of cherry blossom on mobile phones in JapanFor example, picture messaging became a standard part of life for Japanese teenagers back in 2003, well in advance of it taking off in Europe, and they continue to be one step ahead of us in terms of mobile phone design and function. And sticking with texting for a moment, the range of icons are mind blowing and many have crossed into general text language usage.

For example, the symbol for the astrological sign, Aquarius, which is two wavy lines one above the other, has become the symbol for ‘sea’. It’s a whole new world, especially when you consider that while we were getting excited about the 3G network a couple of years ago, Japan was already moving towards 4G.

Basically, in Japan, the mobile phone hasn’t been just a phone with address book and camera attached for years – it’s pretty much everything in one handy packet, from your TV to using it as debit or credit card to go shopping with, right through to playing Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.

Japanese mobiles make the iPhone look like something from the 20th century – in Japan you can use your phone as a train season ticket or plane ticket, pay on the internet with e-money or operate a vending machine. And in Japan, a vending machine is not just for crisps, chocolate and cans, but for products as diverse as eggs, umbrellas, fishing line and bait, toilet paper, kid’s toys, fresh noodles or flowers, fresh fried food, newspapers, flight insurance, alcohol of all types, porn, condoms and energy drinks, batteries, ice cream, and dry ice.

Egg vending machine in Japan

Egg vending machine

Japanese phones scan your fingerprints for automatic recognition, offer hard disc drives, pedometers, and read-aloud systems. In Japan you use your phone as standard to scan the barcode of any item in a retail store to find it on the Amazon site for less and order it instantly, use it to pay your bills, and even read mobile-phone books.

How are you reading today?

Teenagers in Japan are hooked on mobile-phone novels, with books being written specially for the small screen and sent in 1,600 character instalments. Sort of like Kindle, though not, Japanese cell phone novels phenomenon, known as keitai, has spawned its own mini genre and a clutch of keitai authors, of whom one, a 15-year-old from Tokyo who writes under the nom de plume Bunny, has sold over 110,000 paperback copies of her three-volume novel ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’, which was originally typed 1,000 characters at a time on the tiny cellular screen of her mobile phone. ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’ has so far grossed over $116,000.

Robots and Gadgets

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Futuristic electronic gadgets are synonymous with Japan and they continue to set the pace for the rest of the world, with no shortage of new robotic ideas coming through, including robotic vending machines.

Already popular are the talking translators, which go one step further than electronic translators to speak out the text for you. And a new addition to the Japanese iPod community is the ‘Miuro’, an iPod docking station that twists and rolls to iPod tunes and can also be programmed to roll into your bedroom and blast out tunes as your wakeup call.

The HRP-3 Promet Mk-II from Kawada Industries is very similar to Honda’s Asimo, both in appearance and in its ability to carry out a wide range of domestic tasks although far less cute and more scary-looking. However, its $3million price tag means it is probably reserved for the seriously rich gadget addict.

A mere $7,000 will buy you a Nuvo, which is aimed at the same niche as the ifBot and is billed by its manufacturer as ‘the humanoid robot for everyone’, and given Japan’s determination to create a new robotic world, we’re pretty sure that one day they really will become mainstream.

And with web 2.0 transforming our lives, robotic gadgets are also coming online to make our internet experience easier and more enjoyable, such as PaPeRo. This colourful little parrot-inspired robot sits on your desk and dictates everything you say before transforming it into internet content, a totally cute and original way of creating a truly dynamic virtual blog.
And then there is Lovotics, which builds n tehe advances with the cute and cuddly ‘gadgets’ to make love robots:

And have you seen the internet umbrella, Pileus?

Enjoy the rain

Pileus - internet umbrella

Pileus - internet umbrella

Developed by two students, the Pileus is not your everyday umbrella. It has a large screen on the top surface, a built-in camera, a motion sensor, GPS, and a digital compass, and it provides two main functions: social photo-sharing and a 3D map navigation.

The photo function is connected to Flickr.com, and enables the user to take photo with a camera on the umbrella, and upload the pictures to Flickr via a wifi connection. You can also watch photo-streams downloaded from Flickr, and video-stream from YouTube… so while boredom may not be a problem, walking in front of a bus might be. However, even if you do walk in front of a bus, at least you won’t be lost because the inbuilt 3D map navigation is powered by Google Earth. Detecting a location data from GPS, your umbrella will show you a 3D bird’s eye view of your surroundings so you can walk through a city comparing the 3D views and real sights, while navigating using your digital compass.

Ring ring baby

And another truly odd gadget is the ‘Ubi-Wa’. Its name has two meanings in Japanese: “finger ring” or “speak by finger”, and this is precisely what it allows you to do because, yep, it’s a ring that is a phone. Cleverly, the ‘Ubi-Wa’ converts vibrations, which travel down your hand and arm bones into your ear canal, into speech you can understand. It may be a bizarre gadget now, but given the rise and rise of girl power in Japan, it can only be a short amount of time before it becomes one of the must-have accessories.

Girl-power, Japanese style

In fact, girl-power is having a big impact in Japan, in particular schoolgirls and teenagers, who are the true arbiters of cool, and the Arasa, who are the 30-something single girls with spending power.

There are even shopping malls, such as Yurakucho Marui and Marronnier Gate in Tokyo, targeted exclusively at Arasa, and there is a rapid rise in brands directly appealing to this affluent market because they are all about fashion and luxury, which equals a lot more spending.

One retail experience in particular is focused on women – cosmetic sampling salons. Whether online or on the high street, Japanese women now have the opportunity to try before they buy. There are online clubs where women can sign-up to receive regular free samples in return for feedback; exclusive membership-only salons where members can test a wide range of products in luxurious surroundings; and high street testing shops without onsite sales counters or sales assistants, which just goes to prove what a technology-savvy generation this is.

The whole retail experience is, in fact, increasingly virtual. Japanese women have been quick to embrace mobile phone shopping enthusiastically, purchasing products ranging from CDs and DVDs to clothing and shoes from specially-targeted mobile browsing internet stores.

Anime and Manga

And it’s not just girl power in Japan, Okatu are also having an impact on retail trends. These are geeks who are devoted to the grown-up Japanese animated films and comic strips (think Hiro in ‘Heroes’). Many of them are hitting the silver-surfer zone and bringing some serious spending power with them. While many of the younger ones, who still live at home with their parents and so also have a lot of disposable income, are also joining the craze, with the biggest phenomenon at the moment being moe, which is basically an obsession with a particular type or character. Retailers are pandering to the moe as the consumers are willing to spend big bucks on their obsession. While alongside the inevitable rise of memorabilia is the growth of ‘maid-cafés’, where the waitresses are dressed in Anime- or Manga-inspired uniforms. While you may think this is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, experts are predicting that as Anime and Manga increase in popularity globally, so too moe will eventually go global too.

LOHAS: Going green

And just as here, so too in Japan, where ‘green’ is having an impact on retail habits and has even become fashionable. In fact, it’s so popular that the term LOHAS had entered common vernacular. Originally coined in the US, as an acronym for Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability, today in Japan LOHAS identifies anything that has an environmental or health benefit.

The Japanese car manufacturers are well known for leading the way, not least with the global fame of the Toyota Prius hybrid car. But what is probably less well known is their work on green materials for body shells, with a prototype car shown at the Aichi World Exposition in 2008, which has a body made out of kenaf, a plant-based material, also known as or Hibiscus Cannabinus. Toyota has been researching the use of kenaf in automotive applications for almost a decade now and currently kenaf is being used for components in a total of 27 car models, mainly high-end cars. While it may be a long way from total mass production, it’s a neat twist on eco-friendly car development.

While in the EU the green trend is to reduce, reuse, recycle, it should come as no surprise that in Japan, which is widely considered the ultimate consumer society, the general approach is consumerism with a bit of ecological conscience. Add to that their high-density living in big urban areas, which has led to a wealth of creativity when it comes to utilising small spaces and being economical with energy and natural sources, and you get some impressive solutions. For example, a current Japanese trend is for ‘Green Curtains’: growing plants on nets strung across the outside of buildings to provide natural air conditioning.

This has a double benefit: it increases the amount of plant-life in the urban area and also reduces the air-conditioning bill – saving both Yen and energy. Continuing the eco theme, there are vending machines where you can put your empty cans back in and get paid to do so, while Sanyo have brought out a washing machine that works without water. And then there’s the tankless toilet…

Flushing for Japan

In fact, toilets of all kinds are a Japanese obsession, probably because of their national focus on clean versus unclean and the conviction that clean is beautiful (one word can mean both). And they come in all types and size, although mostly small, owing to the compact apartments that most Japanese urban dwellers call home. As a solution to this there’s a popular model that enables you to wash your hands in the water that will be used for the next flush (totally hygienic, it simply fills into a basin in the top of the tank; it’s just cold) and then there’s the washlet, which is a near obsession in Japan, with more people owing one than a computer…er…what’s a washlet?

The king of toilets, the washlet is a bidet (two jets, one for women only, the other for everyone) in a toilet and much, much more… it also warms the seat for you (based on historical usage i.e. it monitors when you mostly go to the toilet and warms the seat at these times…), lifts the seat when you approach (one or both seats, depending on whether you are facing towards it or away from it), offers you music or sound effects while you perform your business (don’t forget how thin the walls are in Japanese apartments), self cleans, shuts the lids down again after flushing, and even monitors your pee and sends the data to your doctor for analysis…they really have thought of everything!

Into the West

So what do you think will make the leap from east to west? I’m not sure if it gets hot enough anywhere in the UK for ‘Green Curtains’ to take off, and I’m not sold on the tankless toilet either and think the washlet is more likely to make me feel nervous than reassured and pampered, but I reckon the mobile phone advances are a given, the water-free washing machine is a winner and I was totally wowed by the internet brolly. And I’m sure there’s much more still to come…

Love the future, love Japan.

© Claire Burdett 2008, updated 2011. First published in What’s the Future (WTF) Magazine.


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  1. As always an informative article ! Many thanks 🙂

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