International Tokyo Toy Show allows a peek at Christmas hits

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It’s that time of year again. Children erupt with joy as they see their favorite anime characters come to life, and tech-savvy young adults scramble to figure out the latest cutting-edge gadgets. It’s not Christmas, but the International Tokyo Toy Show runs a close second.

The toy show will take place at the capital’s Big Sight convention center in Koto Ward through the weekend. Organizers say this year a record 153 toy makers and companies are scheduled to present the latest collections of toys, robots, gadgets and other forms of family entertainment.

“Just come to the event and take a stroll — you’ll get a quick look at what the upcoming trends in Japan’s toy market are going to be,” says Fumiaki Ibuki of the Japan Toy Association, which hosts the event. This year, the JTA hopes to pack the venue to capacity and has set a target of luring 140,000 attendees. The four-day event kicks off Thursday, with a two-day showing aimed at corporate visitors. The doors open to the public on Saturday and Sunday.

During its 52-year history, the toy show has broadened its entertainment roster and now includes demonstrations of the latest products, acrobatic stage shows by fictional superheroes and photo opportunities with anime characters.

On Tuesday, a total of 35 toy products were announced as prize-winners in this year’s Japan Toy Award competition, all of which will be showcased at the toy show. The products were divided into seven categories, which included best educational toy, character-related toy and innovative toy.

One area of Big Sight will be designated as a “kids life zone,” where a hodgepodge of corporations and NPOs hope to educate visitors on ways to enrich or improve their children’s quality of life.

Although the event touts itself as child-friendly, Ibuki stresses that organizers have tried to cater to all age groups.

“Pretty much everyone can enjoy it,” he says. “On display are the whole gamut of toys from the traditional to the state-of-the-art, with every single one of them being unique.”

The event and domestic toy makers are desperately seeking to broaden their consumer base to include adults as the number of children in Japan decreases and the population shrinks and ages.

But while the base is shrinking, the diversity of the event’s roster of products is expanding. Around 35,000 items will be on display — so many that it’s hard to narrow in on any specific trends this year, according to Ibuki. However, he reels off some buzzwords currently making the rounds.

One of those is “technology,” perhaps best summed up by the array of smartphones and tablet devices specifically made for children. Toy makers have been trying to create gadgets that look like smartphones for the past few years. According to Ibuki, though, the devices this year are of much higher quality, so skillfully crafted that they are barely distinguishable from the smartphones typically used by adults.

One example is Fairisia, developed by Megahouse Corp., which is slated to debut in July. It is being touted as one of the first real smartphone devices developed by a toy maker, with almost identical functions to its adult-oriented counterparts. It allows for a continuous Internet connection that lets kids phone, text and download apps — in effect, do everything their parents’ devices can do. Fairisia is aimed mainly at schoolgirls between 10 and 13, a demographic that has grown up surrounded by a variety of game devices that resemble smartphones. Fairisia spokesperson Yuki Itagaki says that those girls are now at a point in their lives where they are beginning to crave the “real thing.”

While Fairisia hopes to cater to tween girls yearning to emulate their older sisters and mothers, Itagaki says the product is carefully designed to ease the concerns of parents, too. The toy includes built-in controls that allow guardians to keep an eye on the websites and apps their children access.

“In a way, Fairisia achieves a delicate balance between exciting the kids and comforting their parents,” Itagaki says.

Boasting a new projection-mapping feature, the Bandai Hako Vision promises to stand out among toy tech offerings at the show. The box is essentially a shokugan, a small toy that often comes packaged with candy sold at convenience stores. It’s a palm-sized cardboard box that displays 3-D images, and is being hailed as an example of Japan’s state-of-the-art technological prowess. Hako Vision was shown to global leaders on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum held in Switzerland in January, reportedly leaving them awestruck.

How it works is simple: Read a code printed on the side of the box using a smartphone; then place the device upside-down atop the box and a downloaded 3-D image will appear.

The past two versions of the Hako Vision series featured the Tokyo Station building and an anime robot from “Mobile Suit Gundam,” respectively. The much-anticipated third version, which is slated to hit shelves in August, will star virtual idol Hatsune Miku, who will be able to dance in the palm of your hand. As with most shokugan, each kit is cheap (this one is set to cost ¥500). According to Hyuma Mihara, one of the product’s chief developers, this affordability “has given the gadget an amazingly broad fan base in terms of age and gender.”

Tech toys won’t be the only thing that gets visitors excited at the toy show: There will be an anime element that should attract many manga fans. Over the weekend, a slew of prominent characters are set to appear and perform for the crowds. One highlight is likely to be “Yokai Watch,” which is currently a popular anime series on television. It was originally a video game that came out last year.

“Yokai Watch” features an 11-year-old schoolboy named Keita who fights and befriends a host of yōkai (ghosts) overrunning his hometown. The video game was developed by Fukuoka-based game publisher Level-5, and the related toy merchandise is being put out by Bandai. Both products have sold at such a brisk pace that experts often talk about the phenomenon in the same breath as blockbusters such as Pokemon or Tamagotchi (electronic pets also released by Bandai).

“People go to toy stores looking for the show’s related items, only to find a column of empty shelves instead,” Ibuki says. Although the show primarily targets elementary school boys, he adds, “It’s not rare at all to see much older people, such as university students and businessmen, crowding toy shops in, say, Akihabara to play the arcade-game version of the show.”

There will also be a dose of nostalgia at the event when heroes from “Ultraman,” “Kamen Rider” and older TV kids’ shows take to the stage. By visiting booths set up by the participating firms, visitors will be able to take photos with other memorable characters, such as Anpanman and Hello Kitty.

The toy show’s organizers are hoping the technology-driven toys and stage shows will resonate with visitors from abroad as well — as does Hakuhinkan Toy Park Ginza.

Located in Tokyo’s Ginza district, one of the capital’s most popular tourist destinations, the prestigious toy store says 20 percent of its clientele are non-Japanese, with many coming from neighboring nations such as China and Thailand.

Spokeswoman Yuka Kobori says a lot of these Asian shoppers tend to gravitate toward toys that have a high-tech element, such as robots and remote-control helicopters, as they see them as embodying Japan’s sophisticated technology and adroit craftsmanship. She adds that shoppers from overseas also tend to inquire about anime and anime-related characters, such as Mobile Suit Gundam, Monchhichi and Hello Kitty.

Kobori, a self-acknowledged avid fan of the toy show, tries to boil down the allure.

“Every time I go, there are new discoveries,” she says. “You visit each booth, and you can play with the toys displayed there ahead of their public release. I kind of go there as part of my job, but often I end up feeling like a kid again.”

The International Tokyo Toy Show takes place at Tokyo Big Sight in Koto-ku, Tokyo, from June 12 to 15. The event is open to the public on June 14 (9 a.m. till 5 p.m.) and 15 (9 a.m. till 4 p.m.) Admission is free. For more information, visit www.toys.or.jp/toyshow.

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