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Friday, Dec. 19, 2003
In praise of a 'brilliant idea'
By YOKO HANI
Even a cursory check of convenience store shelves these days shows how the omake giveaways that makers once offered as lures to buy certain candies have now become the main selling points themselves. After all, how many people would pay 300 yen just for the two almond chocolates in a packet of "Time Slip Glico" -- without the miniature CD omake?
Teruhisa Kitahara, the director of the Tin Toy Museum in Yokohama -- whose book titled "Omake no Hakubu- tsushi (Natural History of Omake)" was published in August -- is in no doubt that the omake cart is well ahead of the candy horse in the minds of many buyers.
"It's simple," he says, "Candies with omake are popular because they are cheap and good. And to most people, these small figurines or mini-CDs alone look to be worth more than the 300 yen price of one package."
Also, because of the huge variety of omake -- usually between 10 and 30 in a series with each candy product -- "many buyers are not satisfied until they have got them all," says Kitahara, a famous collector of retro toys whose personal hoard tops 100,000 items, mainly made of tin.
"The recent popularity of omake-candies shows that it's no longer just children and toy freaks, but people of all generations and both sexes who are now collectors," he says. "They feel excited when they collect these time- and production-limited items they can get only when they buy the candies."
On the supply side, he says convenience stores are a key factor in the growing popularity of these products.
"Makers can sell them so cheap because they mass-produce the omake -- and they can do this because of the vast number of convenience stores, which can take around 3 million of each line. If they made only 1 million, for example, it would be difficult to sell them in a package for only 300 yen."
Manufacturing techniques have also played a significant role. "The technology of the Chinese makers of these figurines has improved so much that they now fully satisfy and entertain not just kids but adults, too," he says.
According to Kitahara, Japan's "omake culture" is no flash-in-the-pan phenomenon -- it is a marketing technique that has long been around.
"The first omake appeared in the Edo Period," he explains. "The famous Toyama no Kusuriuri [traveling drug salesmen from Toyama] attached the first giveaways, such as paper balloons, to their products to appeal to their customers. So the recent trend is an expanded form of an old custom."
Nonetheless, even Kitahara confesses to being amazed by the nonstop outpouring of ideas for new omake. "When I heard about the idea to give CDs away as omake, I was stunned," he says. "I thought it was an immensely brilliant idea. I love music as well, and I have a collection of more than 1,000 vinyl records, but these CDs sound just as authentic. So if you can get that quality for only 300 yen, there's no reason not to."
Since the companies churn out new titles nonstop, however, collectors sometimes miss out on ones they really want. But as this true admirer of the modern-day paper balloon, Kitahara said, "That is exactly why people become so eager to collect omake."