Faced with an ever declining number of children, Japan’s toy makers have started courting their parents, alluring them with frothy beer dispensers and matchbox luxury sedans.

As the industry goes into high gear ahead of the all-important Christmas season, Takara Co. hopes to rise above rivals with its latest batch of so-called life-entertainment toys.

The “Bowlingual” is a little walkie-talkie-like machine designed to translate the sounds dogs make using voice analysis.

Picking up a canine’s voice via a wireless microphone attached to its collar, the gadget distinguishes six emotional patterns, with text messages showing up on the display. Priced at 14,800 yen, the firm hopes to sell 300,000 units by the end of March and rake in up to 2.5 billion yen in revenue.

The toy is part of a growing cache of products targeting adults that the nation’s second-largest toy maker hopes will turn around its fortunes.

According to the Japan Toy Association, the domestic toy market, excluding TVs and portable electronic game consoles and software, stood at 717 billion yen in fiscal 2001.

Industry officials say that while annual sales figures fluctuate due to the lack or presence of hit items, the nation’s demographic changes have been and will continue to push down sales of conventional toys over the long term.

When current President and CEO Keita Sato took the helm of the maker of the long-selling Licca-chan doll in February 2000, the firm was closing one of its worst fiscal years, with a group operating loss of 1.2 billion yen on revenue of 43 billion yen.

With its back against the wall, Takara bet its future on products targeting grownups, and its “think-outside-the-toy-box” strategy seems to be working: e-kara, a toy karaoke machine, has sold 1.5 million units since its release in October 2000.

Likewise, a beer server — a low-tech gizmo using an air pump on a beer can to simulate sudsy beer on tap — raked in 4 billion yen in revenue.

Together, these unconventional toys contributed to 21 percent of Takara’s parent-only sales in fiscal 2001, when the firm logged 3.8 billion yen in operating profits on revenues of 54.6 billion yen.

Such products made up just 5.5 percent of Takara’s sales only two years ago. The company expects sales from the category will soon account for half of its total revenue.

“Today’s grownups grew up watching animation, and they don’t even hide their playful minds,” Sato said. “Once such people ran the risk of being labeled nerds.”

The anime-generation even plays with toys that don’t serve beer or blare karaoke songs, like Bandai Co.’s character products.

As the license holder of a stable of superheroes including Ultraman and Power Ranger, the country’s largest toy maker earns 60 percent of its group sales from popular character commodities, with Mobile Suit Gundam alone credited with bringing in 40 billion yen in fiscal 2002.

What the company sees today is that long-running TV series have won fans spanning generations, capturing the hearts of parents as well as children, explained Shuhei Ino, executive officer in charge of the toy sales division.

“Age boundaries are disappearing very fast, and it is becoming meaningless to pursue age-specific marketing in the character business,” Ino said. “There are adults who want to buy and wear a ‘henshin’ (morphing) belt” used by TV series heroes.

Seeing the increase in adult customers who can afford to spend more lavishly on their desires, the company has launched a series of high-end character toys well beyond the reach of kids.

Last year, it released a gigantic plastic model of Zaku, a popular enemy robot in the Gundam series. Some 1,500 units of the the 1.5-meter tall model were sold despite the hefty price tag of 200,000 yen.

The firm, which hopes to keep its dominant market share on the strength of characters whose appeal transcends age differences, set up a research institution dedicated to developing new characters two years ago.

The industrywide outreach to grownups has not bypassed a toy maker that is proudly sticking to traditional toy chest items.

Tomy Co., the maker of the famous Tomica matchbox cars, of which more than 460 million have been sold over three decades, has started marketing its vehicles alongside Toyota and Nissan to woo adults.

It was the first toy maker to put up an exhibition booth at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2001. Timed for the occasion, it launched Tomica Dream Motors, a virtual automaker on the web, which includes an online showroom and invites ideas for original minicars.

The firm also started putting Tomica ads in newspapers and car magazines and released a series of classic cars only old-timers can appreciate.

“We have been promoting Tomica to grownups for the last couple of years, and we are seeing a growing interest,” said Shiryo Okuaki, the company’s chief operating officer. Many customers buy one for their own collection and another for “business” purposes — to sell the minicars to fellow enthusiasts at a premium later on, according to Okuaki.

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