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The times may change, but the hits keep coming


The 46th year of Showa, 1971, is remembered as the year of the “Nixon Shock,” when the U.S. president took unilateral action to raise the Japanese yen’s value against the dollar — from ¥360 to $1, to around ¥308 to $1. Nixon sought to reduce the swelling trade deficit by action aimed at forcing up the price of Japan’s exports.

Also that year, two institutions made their debut in Japan. In July, the McDonald’s hamburger chain opened its first outlet in Tokyo, adjacent to the Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza. And in December, the Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun — a thrice-weekly publication covering retailing and distribution, now called the Nikkei Marketing Journal — launched its famous “Hitto Shōhin Banzuke.”

With most of its front page written in calligraphy resembling a sumo banzuke (ranking list), Nikkei’s banzuke identified the year’s hitto shōhin (hit products and services) in descending order, working down from the exalted rank of yokozuna (grand champion), to ozeki (champion), sekiwake (junior champion), and so on. Also included was a zannen-sho (booby prize) for spectacular failures.

In addition to the Nikkei promoting its just-launched trade publication, its recognition of products as “hits” came at a turning point for consumer marketing in Japan. During the years of postwar recovery, appliances and other durable goods were designed to meet basic needs. But living standards continued to rise, and from around 1970, manufacturers realized that brand reputation and after-service were no longer sufficient to capture consumer interest. Customers began flocking to innovative designs — particularly the so-called kei-haku-tan-sho (lighter, thinner, shorter and more compact) — thereby spurring competition through novelty and differentiation. Companies whose hitto goods got snatched from store shelves within minutes of their going on sale, or which attracted long lines of customers outside of stores, began basking in their success.

For those interested in tracking the history of consumer hit items, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun last year published a 172-page book, “Nikkei Hitto Shōhin Banzuke 1971-2010,” recording the top winners over that 40-year period.

Currently in its 41st year, the Nikkei hitto banzuke is still going strong, and is now issued twice each year: in midsummer and yearend versions. The group also publishes a separate list in the December issue of its affiliated monthly magazine Nikkei Trendy.

The NMJ’s latest banzuke appeared on the Dec. 7 front page. The two top yokozuna — on the West and East sides — were California’s Apple Inc. (including the late Steve Jobs’ bestselling biography by Walter Issacson, published in Japanese by Kodansha) and setsuden shōhin, products designed to reduce electric power consumption. These were followed, respectively, by two ozeki: smartphones utilizing the Android OS and Nadeshiko Japan, Japan’s women’s world soccer champions. The two sekiwake slots went to Facebook and the shopping area next to JR Yurakucho station in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.

The strong showings by Apple and Android should have come as no surprise. Cell phones and other mobile communications first made the Nikkei hit list in 1994, and have appeared a total of 10 times over the past 17 years.

This year’s list was particularly useful for examples that demonstrated consumer markets’ rapid response to the March 11 earthquake. They included (in order of appearance) electric power-saving products such as LED lamps, solar-powered goods, rechargeable batteries and so on; a campaign to show support for Tohoku through purchasing of its local products; mobile convenience stores serving disaster-stricken areas by truck; radiation measurement devices; a portable space heater from Iwatani Industries powered by bottled gas; and that old standby that will take you almost anywhere in a pinch: bicycles.

So what’s on the cards for 2012? Nikkei Trendy (December) foresees a banner year ahead for the Tokyo Sky Tree in Sumida Ward, scheduled to open to visitors on May 22. As many as 5.4 million visitors may flock to the new 634-meter-high tower in the coming year. The tower’s operator, Tobu Railway Company, will also be offering bargains on tours to Tokyo Disneyland and Kinugawa Onsen spa in Tochigi.

By June, work on Tokyo’s venerable central station will be completed, restoring it to its original 1914 appearance (it had been damaged in a 1945 air raid). The station’s Marunouchi (west) side can be expected to offer visitors new attractions.

Spurred on by the popularity of all-male pop groups who dance, such as Exile, and K-pop imports from Korea, Japanese adolescents will be taking up dancing as never before, and are expected to purchase leotards, shoes and boom-boxes to support their musical lifestyle.

New foods, too, like ayran (a Turkish-style yogurt drink) and nonalcoholic beverages, are expected to gain popularity.

The coming year will also mark the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first disc (recorded in June 1962, released in October). Japanese are certain to be swept up in the excitement at the London Olympics (from July 27), and will also be closely watching the long-running U.S. presidential campaign right up to election day in November.