• Bloomberg


Primopuel is a knee-high Japanese doll with soft, apple cheeks and big black button eyes. It comes in green and pink. When you cuddle it or talk to it, it talks back. It is for grandmothers.

The doll, an award-winner at the Tokyo Toy Show last month, is generating new sales among the elderly for creator Namco Bandai Holdings Inc. as the birthrate drops. Japan is the first developed country to register more annual deaths than births and the elderly will outnumber children 2-to-1 within five years, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

“There just aren’t as many kids anymore,” said Fumiaki Ibuki, 57, a member of the committee that plans the Tokyo Toy Show. “The industry is addressing the problem by widening its target age. The idea is toys aren’t just for kids.”

Bandai, which markets 20 percent of its toys to adults, started the Primopuel line for children in 1999. It’s now Bandai’s best-selling doll with more than a million bought, mostly by women in their 50s and 60s, said the product’s creative director, Hiroko Tajima. It sells for ¥7,980.

Japan’s $6.3 billion toy industry, whose market has shrunk by 10 percent since 2003, isn’t alone in turning to older consumers. Toyota Motor Corp. makes versions of its cars for the domestic market with a detachable seat that becomes a wheelchair.

Fujitsu Ltd. said recently it will start sending staff to the homes of elderly people who buy a computer to set the system up. The “raku-raku” pack, Japanese for “as easy as pie,” is aimed at people over 60. The company says as many as 70 percent of that age group don’t own a computer.

“If you’re the government, you’ve got the tax base to think about. But if you’re selling toys or services, the shrinking market is really nothing compared with the gains you can get with a single product that sells well,” said Martin Schulz, senior economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo.

Bandai’s Primopuel, which combines the Italian for first and the Latin for boy, is touted as a new family member that can be taught to talk and sing.

The two-tone doll can “master” up to five songs and 380 words in the course of a year, provided it gets cuddled and talked to, according to the company.

“Families are living apart these days, so grandchildren are giving the dolls to their grandmothers and daughters are giving them to their mothers,” said Bandai’s Tajima, 24. “It’s a little odd, but the dolls become like a substitute.”

The company sponsors a mock nursery school commencement, a birthday party and even hot springs trips for the dolls and their “parents.”

“We think it’s strange,” said Maho Hayashi, a 23-year-old graduate student at Tokyo’s Keio University who came with a friend to the toy show, which attracted 160,000 visitors June 21 and 22. “I guess people are just lonely.”

Sega Toys Co.’s Dream Golden Retriever, which won a prize for innovative technology at the show, is also for adults. The life-size puppy robot wags its tail when petted, looks lovingly into your eyes when you pat its cheek and responds to six English commands, including “sit up and beg.”

The droid dog makes sense in Japan, where apartments often prohibit animals and, unlike a real pet, it won’t soil the rug, said Kiyoshi Tsuchiya, 28, head of the advertising campaign.

Even at ¥34,650, about 10 times the price of the average toy, Sega plans to sell 100,000 of the robot dogs in the first six months. “They can be really good company,” Tsuchiya said.

“A robot is probably better than nothing. People want companionship,” said Tomoyoshi Inoue, 54, a professor of education at Kyoto’s Doshisha University. “I don’t know if I’d buy one, but I can’t say I don’t understand the impulse.”

Another Bandai offering at the Tokyo Toy Show was a pink heart-shaped piggy bank about the size of a grapefruit that flatters adult women with sweet nothings when they drop money in. It says things like “Come here. Let me rub your shoulders” or “I never want to be apart from you.”

Hiroko Ono, 27, inventor of the Ikemen Bank, or Handsome Man Bank, said she got the idea from talking with girlfriends.

“A lot of women think, ‘If I only had a handsome boyfriend or if only I was rich, I’d be happy,’ ” Ono said. “This piggy bank helps you save money and gives you a taste of romance.”

When an owner of the Handsome Man Bank finally deposits ¥50,000, the relationship reaches its climax. The piggy bank proposes marriage.

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