TOKYO – Yoshiaki Yamanishi set out to create the most boring toy you can imagine.
In the booming world of Japanese capsule vending machines, competition is fierce. Anyone with a little spare change could have been rewarded in recent months with a miniature gas meter that doubles as a step counter, a barcode reader that emits a realistic beep, or a plastic canister of gasoline. the size of a doll with a functional nozzle.
But when Mr. Yamanishi came up with the idea of making a series of ultra-realistic split air conditioners late last year, he was convinced it was a success. Aficionados across Japan scrambled to grab the tiny machines, fitted with air ducts and rotating fans, just like the colorless rectangular units mounted on the exteriors of buildings around the world.
To the list of unlikely pandemic winners, add Japan’s hundreds of thousands of capsule vending machines. Called gachapon – onomatopoeia that captures the sound of tiny plastic bubbles as they tumble through machines and land with a cartoon thud – they hand out random toys by turning a dial. Hundreds of new products are introduced every month, and videos from gachapon shopping sprees accumulate millions of views.
Toys, also known as gachapon, are traditionally aimed at children (think cartoon and video game characters). But their explosive popularity has been accompanied, or perhaps led to, an increase in what the industry calls “original” products for adults – everything from wearable cat hats to replica everyday items, the more mundane the better.
Isolated in their plastic spheres, the tiny reproductions look like a metaphor for life in the Covid era. On social media, users – like the designers of gachapon insist on calling their customers – organize their purchases in melancholy tableaux of life outside the bubble, zen rockeries for the 21st century. Some have faithfully recreated drab desks, outfitted with whiteboards and shredders, others business hotel rooms with trouser presses.
For Mr. Yamanishi, whose Toys Cabin company is based in Shizuoka, not far from Tokyo, success “is not a question of whether he sells or not.”
“You want people to ask, ‘Who in the world would buy this? ” “, did he declare.
It’s a rhetorical question, but in recent years the answer is young women. They represent over 70% of the market and have been particularly active in promoting toys on social media, said Katsuhiko Onoo, head of the Japanese Gachagacha Association. (Gachagacha is an alternate term for toys.)
This enthusiasm has helped to double the toy market over the past decade, with annual sales reaching nearly $ 360 million on more than 600,000 gachapon machines by 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. Industry watchers say interest continued to rise during the pandemic.
The products aren’t particularly profitable for most manufacturers, but they provide designers with a creative outlet and find ready customers in a country that has always had a taste for fantasy, said Hiroaki Omatsu, who writes a weekly column on toys for a website. edited by Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.
“To create an adult gachapon is to dedicate yourself to doing something that is worthless,” he said. “‘This is ridiculous’ is the highest form of praise.”
Gachapon machines have their roots in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, when the machines were distributing candies, peanuts and knickknacks. Japan supplied many of the inexpensive toys that filled them up, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the devices hit the country’s shores.
In the late 1970s, the machines reached their peak when Bandai – now one of the world’s largest toy companies – sparked a nationwide craze with a series of collectible rubber erasers based on “Kinnikuman” , a popular cartoon about professional wrestlers.
Gachapon has since become a staple of Japanese pop culture, a symbol of the fun side of the country that made up Hello Kitty and Pokémon.
Ikebukuro – a bustling hub of Japanese urbanity and pop culture in central Tokyo – has become the unofficial hub of gachapon culture, with machines spilling out of every storefront. Sunshine City, a shopping mall and theme park, has two gachapon “department stores”. The second, opened by Bandai in February, has been certified by Guinness World Records as the largest in the world, with more than 3,000 machines.
Selling gachapon is not much different from buying it: it’s a lottery. Predicting what people will like is next to impossible. And that gives designers the license to make any toy they want.
Novelty is a key indicator of competition for the industry. The fun of gachapon doesn’t come so much from the toys themselves – they have a short half-life – but from the fun of buying them: the joy of discovering unexpected new things every month, the thrill of slot machines of not knowing what that you are going to get.
To keep customers coming back, even the smallest companies are offering up to a dozen new toys each month, sending distributors stacks of paper describing new products on offer for their growing networks of gachapon machines.
Tokyo-based toy company Kenelephant has made a name for itself with detailed reproductions of middle-class products from Japanese consumer brands, items more familiar than desirable.
Displayed on the walls of the white gallery shelves around the company’s office, the tiny replicas of Yoshinoya beef bowls and Ziploc plastic containers position themselves as a sort of pop art. Its stores, located in Tokyo’s bustling train stations, are decorated like high-end cafes with brushed steel, concrete, and a monochrome, industrial palette.
Kenelephant initially selected products aimed at professionals and amateurs, said one of the directors of the company, Yuji Aoyama, but quickly moved on to more attractive objects.
Almost a decade later, the company receives emails every day from companies wanting to miniaturize their products.
The seeds for the current gachapon boom were planted in 2012 when toy maker Kitan Club sparked a frenzy with Fuchiko, a petite woman in the stark, slightly retro uniform of a Japanese office worker – known as of OL, or of an office woman – who could be perched on the edge of a glass.
Mondo Furuya, chief executive of Kitan Club, said the toy’s success has led more than two dozen small manufacturers to enter a market dominated by two large producers, Bandai and Takara Tomy. Most new entrants create products that appeal to adults.
Popular toys sold over a million units. Now, with such intense competition, anything over 100,000 is a real success.
The new producers “seem to have had the mistaken impression that we made a lot of money,” Furuya said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in central Tokyo, where employees meet once a day. months to brainstorm ideas.
The office is a whimsical shrine, designed to resemble a Japanese school and stuffed with toys and artifacts apparently looted from a pirate’s cave. The lobby is lined with the company’s gachapon collections, including a bunch of lumpy, discolored allergens – mostly different types of pollen. The line, said a spokeswoman, was a flop.
The company’s perfectionism cost him money on his early products – Fuchiko’s elbows are hand painted, a detail most people would never notice – but over the years he has learned to reduce costs without sacrificing quality. Yet the toys remain a labor of love: Kitan Club relies on revenue from other products – high-end, licensed toys intended for adult collectors – to subsidize its capsule business.
Keita Nishimura, managing director of another gachapon maker, Toys Spirits, describes the toy design process as both an artistic and technical challenge. It is a three-dimensional haiku defined by price (cheap enough to sell profitably for a few coins) and size (capsules are usually around two inches wide).
At Toys Spirits, the focus is on usable items. Recent successes have included a water cooler that dispenses ant-sized droplets and a crushed ice machine that makes real crushed ice – syrup not included. Seeking maximum authenticity, Mr. Nishimura had the two toys certified as safe for the kitchen by the Japanese food safety regulator.
Doing big things is easy, but doing small things is difficult, he said. Three years ago, he quit his job as a high-end toy maker at a leading company to take up the challenge.
Although Mr. Nishimura dresses like a Japanese employee, when describing his work he looks like Willy Wonka – each empty capsule is a world of pure imagination.
“I put a lot of effort into doing each one,” he said. “I keep trying to put something wonderful in it, something that makes you dream.”