Japan's Latest Fads -- Marketable in U.S.?

While Some Ideas Seem Pretty Out There, Many Are Moving to Mass Market. Here's What to Watch

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TOKYO (AdAge.com) -- Strange as some of them may be, the products and trends coming out of Japan could reshape the world. It's hard to tell which ideas will catch on elsewhere and which ones you have to be Japanese to love. But it's not just native marketers coming up with weird stuff; U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola and R.J. Reynolds are using their imaginations in the country too.
Hakone Kowakien Yunessun's wine 'amusement bath.'
Hakone Kowakien Yunessun's wine 'amusement bath.'

Below are some of Japan's current wacky products and trends, such as butler bars for neglected housewives and themed spas that treat bathers like ramen-noodle soup ingredients. It would be wise for futurecasters to look beyond the much-watched Japanese schoolgirls who indulge in fads. Many Japanese trends from elsewhere are moving into the mass market, such as shower-washable suits that help get harried salarymen to work on time without the expense of dry cleaning.


The first rule of drinking carbonated beverages is to avoid shaking the can before opening it -- until now. Coca-Cola is testing a carbonated Fanta drink in Japan that consumers have to shake. It starts out as a gelatinous substance, so if you don't shake it, nothing comes out. Coke is marketing the drink as a new taste experience that's fun for kids. The cans are half the size of traditional Fanta -- but cost 20% more.


Acerola, also known as Barbados cherry or wild crape myrtle, is a tropical fruit that hails from the Caribbean but has found new life in Japan as the country's additive du jour. Marketed as the latest healthy cure-all thanks to its potent levels of natural vitamin C and bioflavanoids, the fruit has turned up in vitamin-fortified beverages such as Nichirei's new drink Acerola C 2000, as well as flavored waters, yogurts, jams, herbal cold remedies and, yes, even chewing gum.


You've heard of Tokyo's maid bars, where men are served coffee by Japanese women dressed as French maids. Now it's the ladies' turn, with caf├ęs staffed by young men paid to flirt with middle-aged female customers. No, nothing sexual happens between staff and clientele in either venue; it's all part of Japan's fetish with cosplay, a subculture centered on dressing as characters from film, video games and other aspects of pop culture.


A spa theme park located in Hakone, Japan, called Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, offers "amusement" baths, including a wine bath, a green-tea bath, a coffee bath, a sake bath and even a ramen-noodle bath. For the last, developed by famous Japanese ramen shop Nantsuttei, bathing suit-clad customers are a key ingredient in the broth. The bath is shaped and decorated like a real ramen bowl, with chopsticks and noodle decorations hanging over the hot tub. The pepper-flavored water contains collagen and garlic extracts, believed to improve skin. A man dressed as a chef dispenses noodle-shaped bath additives to everyone packed into the hot tub. He also dispenses soy sauce. Real wine, coffee and other drinks are poured into different baths in a similar fashion.


Want to live like Madonna, at least in the bathroom? Import Matsushita Denko's self-cleaning toilet, A La Uno, which means "it washes" in Japanese. The commode cleans itself as the water is flushed. The bowl is made of organic glass that is easier to clean than ceramic toilets. There is also a built-in bidet function, which apparently appealed to the Material Girl so much while she was on tour in Japan that she bought one to take home.


Casio's G-Shock wristwatches have been around for 25 years but have become a fad in Japan thanks to the war in Iraq. Sales skyrocketed after teens saw American soldiers wearing the timepieces on CNN. But young Japanese are adding their own twists to the Hummer of the watch world. Specialty stores have sprung up that allow Japanese to decorate their G-Shock watches the same way they dress up their mobile phones and digital cameras, with trinkets ranging from Hello Kitty decals to Swarovski crystals.


Japanese high-school students are writing novels on their cellphones. Called Keitai novels, they are uploaded to mobile sites. The novels are attracting readers and revenue, since consumers pay for new installments. The most successful are finding homes in the bricks-and-mortar world too, since savvy publishers are putting out printed versions of the completed works, which often become best-sellers. The books work because phone-happy Japanese say they find reality more easily in the virtual world.


Alfred Dunhill introduced well-heeled businessmen to travel suits. A Japanese clothing company, Konaka, has introduced a mass-market version of a suit for executives on the go. The company's Shower Clean business suits do not require professional dry cleaning; they can be washed in a warm shower and do not need to be pressed.


R.J. Reynolds has created Kool Boost in Japan -- cigarettes made with a menthol-infused internal "powerball." Smokers can customize the level of menthol they prefer by squeezing the filter to break the capsule. After developing the Japanese product, the American tobacco giant is testing the capsule technology in the U.S. with a menthol-on-demand version of its Camel brand.
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