Early one morning at the beginning of December, I rushed to the nearest newsstand to purchase a copy of the Nikkei Marketing Journal. It was somehow reassuring once again to see, emblazoned atop page one, the publication’s traditional sumo-style banzuke (ranking sheet) — a layout virtually unchanged since 1971 — listing Japan’s top-selling hit products of 2020.
Before dissecting the 2020 rankings, it’s worth examining how this annual list began. The 1970s marked the time when discerning consumers in Japan began showing a preference for greater variety. Prior to that time, manufacturers had been content to sell their rice cookers, washing machines, TV sets and other mass-produced household items by appealing mainly through brand affinity. Increasingly, companies realized that to compete successfully they would have to attract consumers with innovative products aimed at specifically targeted segments of the market.
The Nikkei Marketing Journal (originally called the Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun) had been launched earlier in 1971 as a trade publication covering retailing and distribution. In order to promote itself to readers, its editors came up with the idea of ranking hits, compiled from retailers’ point-of-sale data over the first 10 months of each year, into a sumo-style banzuke. As a result, that publication can be credited with having created a hit on its own, and, 49 years later, it still enjoys the trust of the general public as an accurate and impartial authority.
Actually, the Dec. 2 announcement of hits in the Nikkei Marketing Journal was preceded one month earlier by a cover story in its sister publication, Nikkei Trendy magazine. Because the hits in the two publications overlapped to some degree, few surprises were evident.
Both Nikkei Marketing Journal and Nikkei Trendy gave the top nod to the successful Shueisha manga series “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” which has generated an economic footprint of at least ¥275 billion.
Created by writer-illustrator Koyoharu Gotoge, the story, set in Japan’s noir Taisho Era (1912-26), follows a boy named Tanjiro Kamado, who becomes a demon slayer after his parents are murdered and his younger sister is transformed into a demon. Gotoge’s comic was first serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump from February 2016 to May 2020, after which the separate chapters were compiled into 23 softcover books. An animated television series began in 2019, and a film version, “Demon Slayer — Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train,” was released in October to record-setting audiences.
Not surprisingly, a whole slew of hit items in 2020 was related, directly or indirectly, to the coronavirus pandemic. Take face masks, for instance. The overall market in Japan this year reportedly grew twelvefold over 2019, with sales for this year projected to reach ¥500 billion. Peripheral goods, including carrying cases, a spray disinfectant to sanitize masks after wearing and a pouch to protect masks when popping them in the washing machine also did well.
Ranked at the top of the banzuke opposite Demon Slayer were online tools such as the Zoom program widely utilized for remote education and other events — which also spurred new demand for personal computers and webcams. Other popular items related to the COVID-19 lifestyle, listed here in descending order, included preparing meals at home; use of food delivery services such as Uber Eats; outdoor leisure activities such as camping; “D2C” direct to consumer sales; taku-tore sites for exercising at home, accompanied by energy and protein supplements; mobile supermarkets; bicycles used by more people to commute to work; and, of course, the government’s on-again, off-again Go To promotional campaigns aimed at stimulating service sector businesses.
In its lead, the Nikkei Marketing Journal stated that these items can be collectively referred to as a “DX pillar,” with DX standing for “digital transformation” — transformative products and services designed to support the lifestyles of people who are reluctant, or unable, to leave their homes during the pandemic. These are likely to change the world as we know it in manifold ways.
“The model for consumers of the future, who will be living with digital, has leaped to the fore,” Nikkei Marketing Journal pronounced.
Nine of the 36 items on this year’s banzuke were electronic products, including Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the Sony PlayStation 5, Apple’s iPhone 12 and bone conduction headphones. The Nikkei Marketing Journal also awarded an “outstanding performance” prize to hamburgers made from plant-based meat.
Looking ahead to 2021, SoftBank Robotics is on the verge of initiating sales of waiters on wheels — robot waiters for restaurants. The Suica IC card system will start rewarding JR East Japan passengers with rebates for avoiding commuting during peak periods. Japan Mint will begin issuing two-tone ¥500 coins to discourage counterfeiting. Also, this coming March 11, the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, is expected to generate new types of so-called support consumption like the Go To program.
Nikkei Trendy, meanwhile, offered predictions for product hits in the coming year: unmanned rail stations and campsites built on unused farmlands (first); Loop-branded sustainable products supported by a number of manufacturers (fourth); foods made from pulverized crickets (fifth); and the Evering next-generation prepaid debit media (seventh). Worn on the users’ fingers and touched to a sensor terminal, this new technology may eventually replace both credit cards and QR code transactions. Trendy also predicted more rural stations served by the Tohoku and Shinetsu shinkansen lines will play home to specialty markets selling local products catering to rail travelers (16th).
Finally, the February-March issue of Dime, a trend-watching magazine from Shogakukan that went on sale in mid-December, offered its top picks for the hits of 2020 and 45 key words that it predicts will underscore new trends and products in the coming 12 months.
The first dozen of Dime’s 45 key words were organized under four categories: essential technological concepts for new product development; new standouts in value for money that create online experiences; ways for Generation Z to enjoy SNS that will generate new forms of consumption; and business startups that will serve as trend incubators. And, of course, smartphone-related goods and services will continue to thrive, from increasingly competitive plans offered by major providers and high-speed 5G networks to phone sterilizer devices.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.
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