It has been quite a year for the archipelago — the new emperor was throned, Reiwa replaced the Heisei Era and the Rugby World Cup brought a throng of tourists. It wasn’t all good, of course — this year also saw the nation’s all-time low birthrate, and a shrinking population that was continuing to age. Amid the hard news, though, there were some trends that lit up Japan’s media and offered the nation with a sense of, if not a little hope, at least some relief. Here are a few topics, in no particular order, that seemed to make a difference in 2019.
PayPay’s cashless system
The merits of a cashless society have long been known, but in Japan, the reality of using e-money didn’t sink in until the consumption tax went up from 8 percent to 10 percent in October. Along with the hike, the government announced a points return system for cashless payments. The public finally understood not only the convenience of cashless payments, but also the added benefits of it being marginally cheaper to use mobile payment services.
PayPay, one such service launched by Yahoo Japan and SoftBank in mid-2018, grew into a monster of an app this year, gaining more than 20 million users and 170,000 registered stores and services. The app offers users up to 20 percent return in points for purchases made and regularly holds e-money lotteries for more cash points. In other words, the more you use PayPay, the better your chances are winning back extra, all of which enables you to make more purchases via your smartphone.
Tapioca drinks are back
You haven’t really lived, apparently, until you’ve had one of these chewy, sweet drinks — or 30 or 40 of them, according to enthusiasts.
Japan’s insatiable urge to guzzle tapioca drinks at every opportunity has caused some marketers to refer to tapioca beads as “black pearls,” though they can be dyed any color of the rainbow. While this boom feels new, the tapioca craze has happened before — once in 1992, then in 2008 and now in 2019, which analysts say is the biggest wave of all.
There are now 60 companies across Japan dealing in tapioca products — double the number from March. And with the advent of wintry hot tapioca drinks making their way into social media postings, there’s every indication that the beads are here to stay — for now, anyway. Marketing companies are trying to repeat the magic with cheesecake drinks, mochi (sticky rice cake) drinks, cookie drinks and others. Good luck with that.
The nifty little “handy fan” was all the rage this past summer, routinely sighted at rock concerts, outdoor events and train station platforms.
A portable fan that can be draped around the neck or held in the palm of a hand, it allows users to blow cool air in their faces while still being able to do other things, like text on a smart phone. Now, “one-hand” or “hands-free” features of gadgets have become the norm, as manufacturers have finally come to terms with the fact that most people refuse to ever let go of their phones. If you weren’t in on the handy fan craze, don’t worry — they’ll likely be back next summer, all upgraded, restyled and accessorized.
Senior drivers’ accident prevention devices
On a serious note, 2019 was a bad year for car accidents, the glaring stand-out being the April incident on a busy Higashi-Ikebukuro crossing. An 87-year-old man was on his way to lunch when he lost control of his vehicle and rammed into a crowd at 100 kilometers per hour, resulting in the deaths of a mother and her 3-year-old daughter.
Public opinion turned against the man when he blamed his car for the tragedy, saying it wasn’t “attuned enough to the needs of older drivers,” and many older drivers, fearing the same fate, relinquished their licenses.
In response, Autobacs and other companies developed an array of accident-prevention devices. A salient example is the Pedaru no Mihariban II (The Pedal Watcher II) from Autobacs, which prevents a confused and/or panicked driver from pushing on the accelerator instead of the brake.
This was also the year of #KuToo — Yumi Ishikawa’s online movement that sought to liberate Japanese women from the pain of having to wear high heels on the job. According to a survey by Business Insider Japan, more than 60 percent of the female interviewees answered that they have been ordered to wear high heels at various workplaces — an inconvenience that often results in painful blisters, bunions and tired feet. #KuToo (a play on the words, “kutsu” and “kutsū,” meaning “shoe” and “pain”) spawned a trend of comfortable or flatter pumps.
Meanwhile, workwear clothing brand Workman gained enough media attention to be touted as a possible rival to Uniqlo in Japan. Workman introduced new outlets called Workman Plus, which brought together a collection of its products tweaked to appeal to general consumers. The blurring of boundaries between work, outdoor and workout wear turned out to be a hit with a public happy to find affordable practical clothing by a company known for sturdy products.