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Sunday, March 29, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

Japan shows how a good's no good unless it's a character good


"Novels you can eat" was the title of an article in the Asahi Shimbun on March 16. It drew on the initiative displayed by a confectionery-maker in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, to commemorate this year's 100th anniversary of the birth of bohemian author Osamu Dazai. That initiative involves a box of 18 cookies made with 100 percent Aomori apple fiber that sells for ¥1,000 and whose lid shows the cover of Dazai's 1944 novel "Tsugaru" (the name of the Aomori peninsula where he was born).

There may be no country in the world that markets so-called character goods as lavishly as Japan. I fought doggedly to get a cash card from my bank that didn't have the likeness of some awful Disney animal on it, before finally having to settle for one themed on "101 Dalmatians." The lady teller at the counter was unable to answer my query, "How do they pack 101 Dalmatians on a little cash card?"

But no matter, Snoopy spy glasses, Goofy hand calculators and Dumbo study aids — there is no end to what might appear on the market when Japanese ingenuity is applied to American creativity. I wouldn't be surprised if Prime Minister Taro Aso drafted Mickey Mouse into his upcoming election campaign; the rodent would certainly boost his popularity.

As for literature, if you go to Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, home of the poet and author Kenji Miyazawa, you will find a host of "Kenji goods" on sale at every souvenir shop. There are Kenji cakes and cookies, Kenji key rings and Kenji noren (door curtains). The bus from Hanamaki to Sendai and points beyond is called the Kenji Liner; while his most famous poem, "Strong in the Rain," appears on bookmarks, ashtrays and who knows what else — though why no one seems to have made a Strong in the Rain umbrella is a mystery to me.

Of course, there are other countries that dabble in goods commemorating the lives of authors or their works. I recently visited the James Joyce Museum in Dublin, where the shop was selling Ulysses fridge magnets. Some years ago I went to Canterbury in Kent, England. You don't need to be reminded there that you are in Chaucer country, as Chaucer tea towels, mugs and T-shirts, among other "Canterbury Tales" goods, assault you at every turn.

Actually, manufacturing and marketing such spin-offs may be a clever way to extricate us from the economic trap we are presently caught in. To that end, I am offering, free of charge, suggestions for you enterprising venture capitalists out there.

"Capitalist" may be a dirty word for some these days, but I, for one, still believe in magic. So, dear readers, shake off those "Bernanke blues," call up your bank manager (if his or her phone has not been disconnected) and get on it.

First, for you Americans out there, let's start with one for kids, because everyone knows that children who nag their parents persistently enough always get what they want.

Set up a Charlotte Web site, based on E.B White's acclaimed 1952 story for children about an adorable spider, "Charlotte's Web." Then advertise it as "The Friendliest Net in the World."

For adults, I originally came up with an Ernest Hemingway shark's fin soup, but settled on tuna instead. I am telling you, put "Old Man and the Sea Chicken" on the market and you'll soon be surfing the Dow Jones with trunks full of dough.

And how about genuine J.D. Salinger "Catcher in the Rye Bread"? It's perfect for the man who, like Salinger himself, wants to get away from it all and stay out of sight for several decades. Brokers and investment bankers, take note.

For you entrepreneurial British readers, meanwhile, take my advice and you will be selling goods like hot cakes. This one's dynamite.

Can you imagine anyone — George Orwell fan or not — being able to resist "Animal Farm Crackers"? To ensure you rise above the common herd, advertise them with the slogan, "All crackers are equal, but some are more equal than others." For you traditionalists, however, there's always "Oliver Twist Porridge" to metaphorically fall back on. Every time you say "Please, sir" and ask for more, a little robot pops out of the box and gives you a slap in the face.

Not all goods are edible; and for you Irish I have created "Oscar Wilde Wallpaper" that can be marketed with the catchy phrase, "It Will Outlive You."

Joking aside, though, literary goods are a serious business, and nowhere moreso than in Russia, where you're sure to clean up with "Old Fyodor's Karamazov Aftershave" — "it's stinging good." Not only that, but it makes a perfect Father's Day gift when combined with "Crime and Punishment Razor Blades."

French consumers will jump at the chance to purchase sweet madeleine bearing the prestigious "Marcel Proust" label; Germans will salivate at the mere mention of "Goethe's Faust Devil's Food Cake"; and show me the Norwegian who wouldn't devour a "Henrik Ibsen Hedda Gabbler Turkey."

All in all, this is a unique opportunity for Japan to take the world by storm again, as it once did with the transistor radio, the Walkman and conveyor-belt sushi. With its Mickey Mouse politics and sub-Atom Boy prime minister, Japan is poised to show the world that it's not the content of a thing that matters, it's what anime or manga character it sports that counts.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese government enlisted the good offices of Hello Kitty to help get that precious seat on the U.N. Security Council, and made Popeye the mascot for the Maritime Self-Defense Forces.

This brings us back to the profligate and dissolute Osamu Dazai, who committed double suicide in 1948 with his favorite cookie at the time. He might have thought twice about jumping into the Tama River outside Tokyo if he'd known that the centenary of his birth was going to be celebrated with baked (I won't call them "half-baked" — let's leave that epithet for his novels) goods marketed in his honor.

"After you've eaten them, look at the package and remember Dazai," urges Raguno Sasaki, the company behind the Tsugaru cookies. With fewer people now reading books, maybe this is where our culture is heading — and it won't be long before people who are asked if they've read a certain author will reply: "I haven't read the book, but I've eaten the cookie."

As a business venture, "culture character goods" are guaranteed to be a smash hit. So, get going on those loans. No one can resist an intellectual, a gourmet and a cheeky capitalist all rolled into one. And remember: If you can't tell a book by its cover, try eating it.



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