National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Japanese media pundits deliver their verdicts on 2019's hit products

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

While consumers may take ownership of certain products for granted, there’s something reaffirming about acquiring a product that’s been designated a hit, and my experiences over the years tell me Japanese aren’t especially different from other nationalities in this regard.

The origin of Japan’s own hit products, however, can be attributed to a specific publication that began ranking them 48 years ago. In 1971, the Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun, a newly launched thrice-weekly trade publication covering the retail sector and distribution, was looking for a promotional gimmick. Why not, someone suggested, recognize the year’s hit items and rank them using the same type of stylized, hierarchical banzuke (formal list) used in sumo?

The publication changed its name to the Nikkei Marketing Journal in 2001, but the familiar banzuke — which this year appeared on the front page of the Dec. 4 issue — has become an institution. Challengers have come and gone, but the Nikkei Marketing Journal’s list still stands out as the mother of all rankings.

One reason may be that the list carries the credibility and prestige of the “Wall Street Journal of Japan.” The criteria used by the Nikkei Marketing Journal are also evidence-based, compiled according to point-of-sale data from numerous retail sources. Thus, the banzuke has been spared accusations of being used to promote products by the publication’s own advertisers.

The Nikkei Marketing Journal also likes to point out that its hits are not merely short-lived fads, but products recognized as having, through astute marketing and/or clever advertising, succeeded in altering the direction of the market, or even opening up a completely new market that hadn’t existed before.

For the year now ending, counting down from the top of the banzuke, the east and west yokuzuna (grand champions) were Japan’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which attracted 1.7 million spectators to games and is believed to have expanded Japan’s fan base of the sport significantly, and the acceleration of cashless payment systems such as PayPay (with 20 million users), the use of which has helped to blunt the impact of raising the consumption tax from 8 to 10 percent.

At the rank of ozeki (champion) were the new Reiwa Era of Emperor Naruhito, which began from May 1 and tapioca tea beverages, initially from Taiwan. Imports of the raw material during the first 10 months of 2019 exceeded all of 2018 by 4.6-fold.

Other 2019 standouts included:

Uber Eats (ranked komusubi, the fourth highest ranking), whose food delivery service is now operating in 10 Japanese cities, with 14,000 restaurants participating.

Basuchii, short for Basque cheesecake. Introduced at the Lawson chain of convenience stores last March, the confection, which eschews use of a crust, has reportedly sold 32 million portions at those outlets alone and has spurred a host of imitators. The confection is relatively new, even in Spain, where it was reportedly invented at an establishment called La Vina in San Sebastian about three decades ago, but began going global quite recently.

Genka sakaba, or inexpensive drinking establishments that set their prices on the basic cost of alcoholic beverages, have begun to catch on. Some 20 are already said to be operating in Tokyo.

Zebra’s “bLen system” ballpoint pens, stabilized using three-point reinforcement that is claimed to suppress wobble, were expected to have sold more than 5 million by the end of the year.

The Nikkei Marketing Journal bestowed a booby prize on yami eigyo, which is short for “the problem of underground comedians,” some of whom had reportedly turned to giving yakuza-linked performances due to their unstable sources of income.

Meanwhile, the January issue of Dime magazine carried its annual Trend Grand Prix, now in its 32nd year. With final judging performed by a three-person panel, the top items in each sector were named. In order of their appearance: the PayPay cashless service took out the “money” section; the iRobot Roomba i7+ vacuum cleaner cleaned up the “appliance” section; Blockchain topped the “IT” section; ANA’s Flying Honu Airbus A380 service between Narita and Honolulu ruled the “mobility” section; Basque-style cheesecake was voted winner of the “foods” section; Shiseido’s Uno face color creator for men won the “cosmetics and health” section; and Workman, a chain of 837 stores that is making durable work clothes look fashionable, was named winner of the “retailing” section.

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. on Nov. 27 issued its own sumo-style banzuke. The new Reiwa Era and Japan’s team in the 2019 Rugby World Cup were given the rank of yokozuna, while Akira Yoshino, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and young sports stars such as golfer Hinako Shibuno and basketball player Rui Hachimura were awarded an ozeki ranking. Meanwhile, subscription services such as Netflix and consumption tax point rebates were awarded a sekiwake ranking; and the countdown to the 2020 Olympics and tapioca tea beverages took out the komusubi slots.

As Nikkei Trendy magazine is affiliated with the Nikkei Marketing Journal, its list of 30 hits of 2019 that appeared in its December issue largely overlapped with the banzuke. Of greater interest, perhaps was its forecast of 100 candidates with hit potential for 2020.

In Trendy’s first place was “Dokodemo Tokyo Orinpikku” (“Ubiquitous Tokyo Olympics”). From July 24, the craziness will descend on Japan and, the magazine warns, it will by no means be limited to Tokyo, as other regions will be determined to get in on the fun. Other Trendy prognostications include Japan’s rapid changeover from a cash-based society to cashless (fourth), the ongoing development of Tokyo’s popular Shibuya district, including the newly opened 230-meter-high Shibuya Scramble Square building (fifth), wearable air conditioning for withstanding soaring summer temperatures (seventh), physiological assist items that provide manual workers with bionic-like strength (13th), introduction of vegetarian burgers (15th) and the new “Bitkey” smartlocks that supplant mechanical key functions (16th).

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.