Of all the jobs I’ve held in Japan, by far the most challenging was the four years I spent during the baburu keizai (バブル経済, bubble economy) as a trend watcher for a market-research company.

This was around 1987, before the Internet era, when the only practical way to collect data in the public domain was to sift through newspapers, magazines, trade publications and government white papers.

I later learned that the work I was doing was called shudai naiyō bunseki (主題内容分析, thematic content analysis), which involved looking for words and phrases that frequently pop up in the mass media and trying to follow the direction by which consumers spent their discretionary income. Our team reported on this to foreign companies and other organizations eager to make inroads on the Japanese marketplace.

The job put me in touch with a whole new vocabulary of business terms, such as shijō senyū-ritsu (市場占有率, market share) and so on. One term that frequently cropped up among marketers was dankai no sedai (団塊の世代, cluster generation), used to mean the baby boomers born just after World War II — of which I happen to be one. The Japanese term owes its origin to the title of an eponymous novel published in 1976 by economist Taiichi Sakaiya.

By the mid 1950s, young women in Japan were already behaving like princesses who expected their aspiring prince charming to provide them with household conveniences. The top three items were a shiro-kuro terebi (白黒テレビ, a black-and-white TV set); sentakuki (洗濯機, a washing machine) and reizōko (冷蔵庫, a refrigerator). It eventually got to the point that prospective brides began holding out for these items as a precondition for marriage, upon which the items were humorously referred to as sanshu no jingi (三種の神器 , three sacred treasures), a humorous allusion to the mirror, sword and curved jade amulet that are the vestments of Japan’s monarchy.

“At that stage there weren’t any ‘hit’ products yet, because consumers would buy anything, and there wasn’t a great deal of discrimination,” a newspaper editor explained to me, adding it was not until markets became hōwa sareta (飽和された, saturated) that manufacturers began competing for niche markets. When a product took off and managed to carve out a completely new segment of the market, it was designated a hitto (ヒット, hit).

Now, of course, the end of each year is full of pundits compiling charts of products that scored big among consumers over the previous 12 months.

The ganso (元祖, originator) of hit lists, called the hitto shōhin banzuke (ヒット商品番付) appears on the front page of the Nikkei Ryūtsū Shimbun (日経流通新聞, Nikkei Marketing Journal) early each December. The banzuke became an instant sensation upon its debut in 1971, because of its clever use of a sumo-style ranking list (including brush calligraphy) to compile the year’s top consumer products and services.

This year’s two yokozuna (横綱, grand champions) were, respectively, エコカー (eco cars) such as the Toyota Prius on the east (left) side of the list and gekiyasu jīnzu (激安ジーンズ, ultra-cheap blue jeans), so said because they are priced under ¥1,000, on the west (right) side.

The two ōzeki (大関, champions) were low-alcohol beer beverages, such as Kirin’s Free, and energy-thrifty LEDs.

Two Nikkei-affiliated magazines publish their own lists of hits. The December issue of Nikkei Trendy issued a list of the year’s top 30 products. And the January issue of Nikkei Entertainment! features a “2009 Hitto Banzuke,” several dozen pages of hit lists broken down by entertainment genre, including rock music, TV dramas with the largest viewer ratings, bestselling books and so on.

DIME magazine, from publisher Shogakukan, issued its “Mega-hit products” roundup that also included a torendo daiyosoku (トレンド大予測 , big trend forecast) for hito, mono, koto (人, 物, こと, people, objects, things) in the coming year. Places to watch include Haneda Airport, which will be increasing international flights from 2010, and the city of Shanghai, which is expecting 70 million visitors to its world exposition.

For those who want to delve deeper into the serious aspects of professional trend monitoring, Dentsu Inc. and the Hakuhōdo Seikatsukenkyūjo (博報堂生活研究所, Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living), two major think tanks with ties to advertising agencies, are the right people to ask what’s happening and why. The Hakuhodo Institute’s Web site contains downloadable PDF files (in Japanese) on a variety of cutting-edge topics.

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