Toward the end of every year, the media, advertising agencies, think tanks and other organizations look back on the “hit products” whose successes helped define consumer preferences over the previous 12 months.
The term ヒット商品 (hitto shōhin, hit product) is credited to the 日経流通新聞 (Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun, Nikkei Marketing Journal), a thrice-weekly newspaper covering retailing and marketing, which was founded in 1971. Seeking to promote their nascent publication, the editors hit upon the idea of listing the previous year’s most innovative and successful products and services in the format of a 相撲番付 (sumo banzuke), a stylized list of wrestler rankings written in heavy brush strokes called sumo-ji, on the front page of the year’s final issue.
The Nikkei’s annual ヒット商品番付 (Hitto Shohin Banzuke) itself became a hit product, and has remained the publiucation’s most popular feature for 44 years.
As in sumo, the Nikkei’s winning products are arrayed in a top-down hierarchy. The two contenders for 横綱 (yokozuna, grand champion) are written in large characters at the top, with the left (also referred to as “east”) side, which predominates, contending against the right (or “west”) side. The two yokozuna are followed in descending order (and smaller lettering) by pairs of 大関 (ōzeki, champion), 関脇 (sekiwake, junior champion), 小結 (komusubi, 4th-ranked) and about a dozen 前頭 (maegashira, rank and file).
The rationale behind according recognition to hit products (and services) was a byproduct of Japan’s postwar economic recovery. At some point, the 普及率 (fukyūritsu, diffusion rate) for basic household appliances such as 炊飯器 (suihanki, rice cookers), テレビ受信機 (terebi jushinki, televisions), 冷蔵庫 (reizōko, refrigerators) and 洗濯機 (sentakuki, washing machines) was at the point where most homes had one of everything. This left manufacturers with only two ways to address the market: Be content with 商品の買い換え (shōhin no kaikae, replacement sales) when a product broke down or wore out, or develop niche products — by changing their function or appearance — to achieve 差別化 (sabetsuka, differentiation) for potential buyers.
While many hits begin as niche products, they eventually go on to redefine the mainstream. An example of this was アタック (Atakku, Attack) laundry detergent, launched by Kao Corp. in 1987. Housewives, most of whom did their neighborhood shopping errands aboard clunky ママチャリ (mamachari, shopping bicycles, literally “mom’s bike”) had long been forced to struggle with bulky boxes of detergent. Kao’s concentrated formulation not only did a good job getting clothes clean; it was just a fraction of the size of rivals, making it easier to carry and easier to store at home.
From the 1980s, market watchers noticed that consumer preferences were changing, as they sought more emotional satisfaction from their purchases through products more closely reflecting their personal lifestyles. This zeitgeist was expressed by the saying 十人十色 (jūnin toiro, literally, “ten people, ten colors,” meaning something similar to “different strokes for different folks”).
In the NMJ’s 2014 banzuke, which was issued Dec. 3, the two yokozuna were インバウンド消費 (inbaundo shōhi, inbound consumption, i.e., tourism from abroad) and 妖怪ウオッチ (“Yōkai Watch”), a hugely popular series of role-playing video games originally created by Noriyuki Konishi, which has spawned a television show and hordes of 関連グッズ (kanren guzzu, spin-off merchandise).
Next, the items ranked ōzeki were the hugely popular Disney animated film “Frozen,” inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and the new “Harry Potter” attraction, which opened last July at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. One notch down, at 張り出し大関（haridashi ōzeki, extra-ranked champions), were fifth-ranked tennis pro Kei Nishikori and figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
The two sekiwake were, 格安スマホ (kakuyasu sumaho, inexpensive smartphones) and Apple’s iPhone 6.
So what is in store for the year ahead? You might want to watch Japan’s largest advertising agency Dentsu Inc., who issue a prediction for the year to come titled “消費者が選ぶ 2015年の有望商品ランキング (Shōhisha ga erabu nisenjugonen no yūbō shōhin rankingu, The 10 most promising products for 2015 chosen by consumers.)” Pay attention to the following, because if Dentsu is right, you’ll be seeing these words often over the coming year.
In descending order they are, 電気自動車（燃料電池車も含む）(denki jidōsha [nenryo denchisha mo fukumu], electric vehicles [including those with fuel-cell batteries ]); 3-Dプリンター (suri-di purinta, 3-D printers); 格安スマートフォン (kakuyasu sumato fon, inexpensive smart phones); 国産ジェット機 (kokusan jettoki, domestic jets or Japan-built civilian jet aircraft); 4Kテレビ (yon-kei terebi, televisions with 4K resolution); 終活 (shūkatsu, making preparations for one’s own death); スマートウォッチ (sumāto uotchi, smart watches); カーシェアリング (kā shearingu, car sharing); 公衆Wi-Fi (kōshū waifai, public Wi-Fi); and finally 装着型カメラ (sōchakugata kamera, wearable cameras).
So then, that was the year that was. I think it’s highly significant that the NMJ’s grand champion for 2014, consumption by tourists visiting Japan from abroad, gave heretofore unprecedented recognition to the economic impact of foreign tourism. The expenditures reached ¥1.4 trillion in the first nine months of the year. The general consensus is that 2015 will mark yet another record-setting year for visitors to “Cool Japan” — the name given to the government initiative to promote Japanese culture.
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