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Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

Fortunetelling traditions thrive on indecision


Staff writer

Runes, tea leaves and chicken innards. A strange group, perhaps, but all have a place in fortunetelling tradition as aids to seeking insight and resolving indecision. Now, though, soothsaying aids are growing even more motley, with recent additions including Shinjuku Station, koalas, eggplants and squid among many, many others.

Updates to ancient divining practices really gained momentum in Japan after the May 1999 publication of "Ningen Maruwakari no Dobutsu Uranai (Human Nature Through Animal Fortunetelling)." The colorful, pocket-size book weds elements of Chinese and Western astrology to categorize individuals, based on their year and date of birth, into 12 creature types: elephant, cheetah, tiger, raccoon dog, monkey, black leopard, sheep, koala, lion, wolf, deer or winged horse.

Once readers have determined their animal, they can learn all about their type's distinguishing characteristics and proclivities of the soul, find out which other types are likely to be their friends, lovers or foes, then top it off by reading about the beastly sides of film stars, pop stars, sports figures and other celebrities.

As with the success of many fads, the idea was irresistibly simple: Take an old theme and jazz it up. The book, with its colorful kiddie-style cartoons and drawings, has sold more than 2.12 million copies and continues to set new paperback sales records for its publisher, Shogakukan.

You didn't have to be a marketing genius to see the sales potential of the novelty: It's a simple ice-breaker that aids human relations. ("So what's your animal? Lemme guess . . . a raccoon dog?") More importantly, it's a cute and light diversion that's more akin to pop-psychology quizzes than cosmic heaviness. The book has spawned numerous imitations, riffing on everything from the sushi served at conveyor-belt restaurants (kaiten-zushi) and the stations of Tokyo's Yamanote train line to izakaya dishes, vegetables, sea creatures and monsters.

Some of these new strains of fortunetelling were launched in magazines, while others were born on the Internet before being published as books. Although none has yet equaled the success of dobutsu uranai, some -- such as kaiten-zushi fortunetelling, which started last year as a free service on a Web site of publisher Kodansha -- have caught on and led to healthy book sales.

"We first came up with the idea of fish to compete with animal fortunetelling," said Toru Hattori, vice head of Kodansha's digital content department, which publishes the Web magazine, Web Gendai ( kodansha.cplaza.ne.jp ). "But we had second thoughts when we realized young people nowadays know little about the varieties and names of fish. Then we decided to go with sushi."

Enhanced by Web-based animation, kaiten-zushi fortunetelling proved to be another hit. At its peak early last year, the site was visited by about 250,000 people a week. To date, it has served about 8 million visitors. The system is simple. You pick five out of 12 plates of sushi on a conveyor belt. Based on which you choose, and the order in which you pick them, the uranai categorizes you as a toro (fatty tuna), ebi (shrimp), tamago (egg) and so on. It then analyzes each choice to give insights into how you do and should handle love, family, money and personal goals. This is wrapped up with a general analysis and forecast for the year.

When devising the system, Kodansha collaborated with a fortuneteller who claims that people's preferences for sushi, which has a wide array of textures and tastes, reflect their personalities.

Hattori said it was only after he took the test himself, and found that it summed up his personality almost perfectly, that he gave the project launch approval. "We approached this fortunetelling system pretty seriously," said Hattori, who, incidentally, is a "toro."

Other systems recently riding the fortunetelling wave use basically the same method to give a personality reading based on such information as date of birth and blood type.

Their popularity, says Akira Fujitake, a professor of media theory at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, corresponds with the recent trend of people wanting to get in better touch with themselves. However, he doesn't view it as part of a deep soul-searching process.

"People are turning to fortunetelling simply [as a means of diversion] rather than in a serious search for answers to grave matters concerning their lives," he said. "They are seeking advice on small problems, like what color clothes they should pick for the day." Which is why people don't find anything odd about the new varieties using animals or sushi and don't seem to care much about the systems' credibility.

From a business standpoint, Hattori of Kodansha is confident that uranai sites in general will continue to be popular on the Net, but he's not so optimistic about the future of simple personality-reading systems.

"We can come up with other similar varieties such as 'cafe uranai,' 'pizza uranai' or 'World Cup uranai,' " he said, "but I am sure they won't become blockbusters."

So, what does he see in his commercial crystal ball as the next big uranai thing?

"Something very orthodox. Something like a full-scale tarot on the Net, or something that will give you a very detailed uranai result equivalent to a 300-page book."

It was obvious Hattori had something specific in mind, but he declined to reveal any details. Instead, he said, with informed prescience: "We will create something different by the end of this year. I think it will be very authentic."



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