They gather in Tokyo's Shibuya district-teenage girls with unnaturally dark tans, hair streaked with gray, cell phones dangling like charms from chains, schoolgirl uniforms shortened up to there. Or they're wearing Hawaiian prints and cork wedgies, hair bleached blonde. Or next week-well, that's too far away to guess what the world's trendiest teens will be donning.
But why should you care? Because not only do these harbingers of hip affect trends in their native Tokyo, but their last-minute decisions on the next "kawaii" thing (think obnoxiously cute) often show up here. Take a look at many of the trends from the past 10 years, and you'll see "Made in Japan" stamped underneath-Tamagotchi, PokÃ©mon, Hello Kitty, photo sticker machines, sushi and sake, Zen-inspired dÃ©cor.
"[Japanese consumers] seem to be more fickle [than Americans] and have an incredibly short attention span when it comes to consumer products, thus creating constant pressure on companies to come up with a 'new' product-any product," says Ken Matsuno, a marketing professor and the regional director of the Asia Institute at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Matsuno says the ubiquitous adolescent girls are the ones to watch. Sarah Lonsdale, author of Japanese Design (Carlton Books), noticed that was the case with the recent popularity of NTT DoCoMo's i-mode, a wireless Internet-enabled phone that has 26 million Japanese subscribers. "These girls wore the phones around their necks. They were more like accessories, and that really helped fuel the development of Internet telephones."
Teen girls aren't the only ones making trends. Foot-stomping video game Dance Dance Revolution is turning out scores of adolescent boys with happy feet. And the Japanese have long aired reality TV, points out Mark Schilling, author of The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (Weatherhill). The gaman taikai (endurance contests) don't seem so strange now that people regularly eat live bugs in prime time. And all Japanese generations enjoy anime and manga (animation and comics), which have steadily gained popularity here, due to Princess Mononoke, PokÃ©mon and Cartoon Network's Toonami animation block.
"I felt good content-meaning great story and characters-would work in any industrialized nation," says Gen Fukunaga, 40, who co-founded Funimation Productions Ltd., the North American master licensee of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, two Japanese hits currently shown on the Cartoon Network. Fukunaga first viewed anime while living in Japan in eighth grade and always wondered why such good content wasn't being shown in the United States. In 1994, he asked his uncle, who works at a major Tokyo studio, exactly that, and soon found himself in business with wife Cindy and one of his angel investors, Daniel Cocanougher. Since then, he's gained the licenses to several other properties and has built a $35 million business.
"For Americans, the appeal of Japanese comics, animation and toys-often all part of the same marketing machine-comes from a creative freedom harder to find in U.S. products," says Schilling. "Japanese animation can be sexy and violent in ways that are taboo in the U.S. Or it can be wildly imaginative in ways that American adults, raised on blander fare, consider off-puttingly bizarre, but that American kids, with fewer cultural blinders, find fresh and exciting."
But don't think U.S. adults are the only fuddy-duddies. There are reasons tech trends start with Japanese youth. "Japanese [adults] are generally more risk-averse and [want to] understand technology first," says Fukunaga, "hardly a qualifying attribute to be an innovating consumer segment."
For risk-taking entrepreneurs, Japanese hits are ripe for the picking. "Many large American corporations tend to shy away from those new and trendy Japanese consumer products," says Matsuno. "In many cases, Japanese companies had [to] bring products here themselves due to the lack of interest among potential U.S. partners of a large scale."
Like Japanese youth who grasp a product's worth before their parents even realize it exists, you have an obvious advantage over big corporations. Look at Fukunaga: He jumped on a property that, while enormous in Japan, was nonexistent here, likely because companies were loath to license an animated hit so unlike American cartoons. Open your own eyes-and mind-and you, too, may find the next big (Japanese) thing.