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Sunday, May 5, 2002

A plastic menagerie for kids of all ages

Special to The Japan Times

"Instead of only children, we started to think about what we could sell to people in their 30s, 40s or 50s."

Masakatsu Ishimori, Tokyo branch manager of Osaka-based confectioner Furuta Seika, can vouch for the commercial advantages of packaging toys with candy. By appealing to adults with neat collectible figurines, his company is enjoying a boom in sales that would otherwise be almost certain to shrink in line with Japan's declining birth rate.

Furuta's best-known product is Choco-Egg -- an oval of candy that encases a capsule containing detailed plastic figurines of animals, birds, fish, amphibians or insects -- some 280 different items in all. The company has sold more than 100 million eggs since launching the product in 1999.

Referred to in Japanese as omake (giveaways), toys packaged with candy, which typically sell for between 200 yen to 400 yen, have become common at convenience stores and supermarkets. The candies themselves tend to be pretty unremarkable; a cynic might say they are more like toys with candy thrown in for good measure.

To appeal to children of all ages, the playthings provided have become increasingly esoteric. A prime example would be another recent Furuta product called Yokai Netsuke, which was launched in August 2001.

In olden times people used netsuke -- small carvings of ivory or wood -- to secure the drawstrings of a purse or a small container worn suspended from the sash of their kimono. For Furuta's series, Osaka-based toy manufacturer Kaiyodo commissioned renowned artist Takayuki Takeya and several others to create figurines based on traditional designs. The solid plastic reproductions, measuring about 2.5 cm high, were then produced in China.

Yokai translates as "goblin" or "monster." The 48 items in Furuta's Netsuke series (24 each in painted and natural cinnabar finish) include such mythological figures as the fearsome Ema Dai-o, the king of the underworld; Tesso, a nasty rat with metal fangs; Tsuchigumo, a giant man-eating spider, and Nuppeppo, a bloblike creature said to haunt abandoned Buddhist temples.

"We often get calls from customers to the hotline at our company headquarters," says Furuta's Ishimori, with a smile. "Some just call to say how much they enjoy collecting the toys."

In general, omake campaigns tend to last anywhere from two weeks to six months, with figures launched at different times and in different parts of the country.

Some rabid fans have reportedly spent as much as 1 million yen to assemble their collections, even traveling to other parts of Japan in order to obtain every piece of a series. Full collections sometimes contain a hard-to-find mystery prize. For those who simply musthave a certain piece and who are not deterred by price, brokers dealing in such goods can be found on the Internet.

The annual candy-with-omake market is presently estimated at 55 billion yen. Ezaki-Glico Co. pioneered the genre when it began enclosing toys with its chewy candies in 1927. The company is presently marketing its Time Slip Glico series, featuring items popular from the early postwar period, packaged in a retro box design to reinforce the nostalgic image.

In addition to confectioners, some soft-drink bottlers also attach giveaways. In March, Pepsi-Cola Japan launched a series of 24 Ichiro Suzuki bottle-cap figurines, sold with its 500-ml soft drinks. (In past campaigns, bottle caps have featured Pepsi Man and "Star Wars" characters). A spokesman at Suntory, Ltd., which produces Pepsi-Cola here, said a total of 1.5 million cases with 36 million omake were shipped. The Ichiro figurines helped to boost drink sales during a normally slack sales period.

The sheer variety and constant turnover of products makes it difficult to keep track of what items are for sale where and when. But if you're curious to see more, here's a tip: Stores in the Maruetsu supermarket chain feature a large plastic case in their candy department that displays many of the figurines sold together with confections.

Extra, extra

Hey kids, here's a selection of collectible giveaways. Happy hunting!

Coca-Cola Japan: Kigurumi Mascot Dolls. Sold with Georgia coffee drinks.

Kaiyodo: Alice's Adventures in Figureland. Miniatures from the famous Lewis Carroll novel, based on illustrations by Sir John Tenniel.

Kayaba Shokuhin: Yokai Jiten (Spook Dictionary). Set of 18 cute grotesque characters.

Meiji Chocolate: 365 Days Birthday Teddy. Colorful stuffed teddy bears, each with its own name and birthday.

Meiji Seika: Meiba Densetsu (The Legend of the Famous Horse). Reproductions of Japan's most famous thoroughbreds and the stories behind their race victories.

Morinaga Seika: One Hundred Sheep. Series of cute sheep figurines with removable wool coverlets. Each sheep is color coded and "branded" with its astrological sign, making a total of 100.

UHA Bikaku Tou: Collect Club series featuring famous items from antiquity, including miniature reproductions of the Parthenon, the gold mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamen and other items from Chinese, Babylonian, Greek, Roman and Mayan civilizations.

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