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JAPAN LIGHTENS UP AMUSING AND WACKY NEW PRODUCTS SURGE

By Published on .

TOKYO-After more than four years of recession, Japan is starting to regain a more relaxed approach to spending disposable income.

Seeing light at the end of the recessionary tunnel, consumers are loosening their formerly tight hold on purse strings and eschewing a necessities-only philosophy by buying whimsical products. Among them: a TV in a can; a radio/telescope combination and a doll's head which grows hair of grass.

"Consumers feel life has become a little too somber over the past year," said Chris Beaumont, managing director of market research company INFOPLAN, noting that consumers are tired of being so somber. "They [consumers] are more willing to spend money impulsively in order to enjoy themselves," he said, describing the spending pattern as "controlled indulgences."

One of the new products offering light relief from the grimness of a four year recession is Takara Co.'s Shibakari-kun $9.07 novelty, a doll's head about the size of a softball constructed from sawdust and nylon stockings. Its "hair," a variety of thin-bladed grass, starts to sprout out of its "scalp" within a week after the head is placed in a dish of water. Since the heads are handmade, the faces are all distinctly different.

The doll was introduced last December and is now expected to sell at least 1 million units this year. The product's progress is especially surprising considering it is supported only by word-of-mouth advertising generated by editorial publicity generated in-house.

A more expensive but new and different line, developed with the help of ad agency Hakuhodo, is Casio Computer's CanTele, a TV in a soft-drink can which features a one-inch liquid-crystal screen. Casio figures that Can-Tele is perfect for automobile use because it fits easily into the drink holder and sells for $153. Casio expects the product would likely end up a promotional item for corporations and doesn't intend to sell direct to consumers. Neither does the company plan business-to-business advertising from its agency Hakuhodo, since it's anticipated the product will sell itself.

Sony's two novelties are X-Sight and Uku LaLa. X-Sight, a $153 product, combines a telescope with an FM radio for sports fans who want to watch games live through the scope while listening to the commentaries broadcast on FM/AM radio or TV. X-Sight is supported by a magazine and transit campaign headlined, "X-Sight, the telescopic radio," created by Tokyu Advertising and showing a man using the product at a sports stadium. Sony wouldn't discuss budget for future ad plans.

Uku LaLa, a $477 sound system for portable Discman and Walkman music players, incorporates spherical speakers at the end of extendable rods that can be swivelled to point in any direction. A magazine campaign from Tokyu is headlined "It's as if you could see what you are hearing," a play on words in Japanese.

Even with the high pricetags and minimal advertising, the products have done relatively well. Sony is producing 1,000 Uku LaLa units a month and although the company wouldn't specify sales, said the product was outstripping expectations. Sony is producing 5,000 units of month of the X-Sight model that receives AM/FM and TV sound; the company is making another 2,000 of another receiving short wave frequencies.

For those whose impulse is to make music rather than to listen, Yamaha is developing the clothes that suit. Their Miburi, a bodysuit incorporating sensors at the wrists, elbows, and shoulders, generates tones depending on the wearer's movements. Pitch and volume of specific tones can also be controlled through appropriate gestures. Yamaha claims the Miburi has finally achieved "integration between the musical instrument and the human body."

While the company hasn't yet set a price, it says it may release the gadget later this year in Japan.

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