Gift-giving in Japan: testing the limits of technology--and killing ticks

December 24, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- This year's holiday season will make a few thousand Japanese some of the first people in the world to

unwrap gifts that will cure a computer virus, warn of exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays and kill ticks.

These are some of the futuristic, innovative -- and, in some cases, just plain gimmicky -- new products Japanese companies fed into their domestic market this fall with the approach of the annual year-end season for giving "gratitude" gifts to bosses, teachers, social superiors and people who have in some way helped you get through the past 12 months.

If they sell here this year, that will be the signal for some of them to go into export catalogs in time to be added to Christmas and other wish lists in the United States and Europe in a year or two.

Others will go through a few refinements, or be abandoned, as Japanese manufacturers go over the test-market results.

This year's new entries are the first appearances on the market of goods that typically have taken five years to go from design to market testing.

At that pace, product-design reports in Japanese trade publications suggest, five years from now a few Japanese can expect to be offered new houses in which they can telephone their bathrooms to dial in the depth and temperature of bathwater, the lighting level and the scenery -- African jungle, for example, or Alpine snow, displayed on a panoramic wall unit -- that they want to find waiting when they get home.

By 1997, Business Tokyo Today magazine predicted last month, three-dimensional television sets and home video telephones will on the market in Japan.

Misawa Homes Co., a major builder that has pioneered many facets of computerized architecture, said last year that it was at work on a robotized bedroom that would encapsulate a sleeper in an isolated atmosphere, free of street noises and neighbors' cooking odors, and lull him to sleep with oxygen and relaxing music.

Most of the new products introduced this fall were scheduled at the peak of the go-go 1980s, but the breakneck pace at which Japan's giant companies have brought them to the market does little to reflect the slowing pace at which even this country's dynamic economy grew in this first year of the 1990s.

"There are so many new gadgets and machines now that consumers find it hard even to keep abreast of what's on the market, much less to decide what to buy," Tokyo Business Today said as the fall entries began to pile up on shelves.

The trend toward "fuzzy logic" microcomputers to control machines and appliances, which began in earnest in 1989, became the dominant theme of electrical products in 1990.

They include a "fully fuzzy" washing machine that can sense what kind of materials are being laundered, adjust the water temperature and level, set the time and speed of the cycle and, if so instructed, raise the water temperature to 122 long enough to kill ticks.

Offered by Sharp, the machine sells for $700 in its small Japanese-sized model, roughly equivalent to an apartment-sized washer in the United States.

For those who prefer to kill their ticks chemically, Tokyo Style Co. came out this year with an encapsulated fabric that gives off gases to do away with the insects.

The number of items with tick-killing options was one of the striking features of this year's new-products season, one evidence of changes prosperity has brought.

As the nation has moved from leaky wooden houses to more airtight, centrally heated apartments, it has been plagued increasingly by the tiny, burrowing insects, and marketing studies have shown an increasing receptiveness to goods that will help cope with them.

In that sense, the tick-related products also reflect a degree of adjustment in corporate strategies.

As the Ministry of International Trade and Industry kept up its pressure for more reliance on domestic consumption as a force for industrial growth, many companies have begun to expand the Japanese consumer's role in their planning, making Japan more a market in its own right and less a mere place to try out products for eventual export, as some big Japanese manufacturers have done for the past four decades.

But potential export products continued to be a big part of this year's new-products season.

The tick-killing cloth was just one of several experiments in marketing encapsulated fibers, which permit a variety of chemical applications that respond to environmental signals such as light and temperature.

Kanebo, a cosmetics company, opened that field in 1987 with pantyhose that give off perfume in response to leg movements, a market that is expected to reach $38 million this year.

More practical uses began last year with ski wear that is white to reflect heat at temperatures above 41 and moves through darkening shades of gray to become black -- and absorb heat -- at 32.

This year, Tokyo Style applied the same idea to golf, adding color by making clothing that is white above 82 degrees, shading off into a deep wine, red or green below 57.

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