Robotic pets, also known as robo-pets (not to be confused with the actual Robopet), are making something of a return to the shelves of stores in Japan in a valiant effort to buck the trend of local toy manufacturers’ sales declining as the birth rate falls.
We all remember the days when Paro and AIBO first burst into our lives. Now such robotic and interactive animal toys are pretty standard. But let’s take a look at some of the new entries in the market and also take a trip down memory lane while we’re at it.
Back in the 1980′s Tomy (long before it merged with Takara) launched a successful range of robotic toys called Omnibot. They included such high-tech functions as an integrated cassette player (no sniggering at the back!) and could carry things for you if you were lazy enough. Omnibot’s reign in the hearts of kids and geeky teens was brief but it has made a bit of a comeback, at least in name. Takara Tomy have borrowed the brand for two recent new robo-pets.
The Omnibot Hello! MiP is a two-wheeled robot that can dance for you and even carry your drinks!
Things have certainly moved on since the original Omnibot. No cassettes in sight here. reThe Hello! MiP can move around by motion sensors responding to your movements — e.g. place your hand in front of it — as well as be controlled by your phone.
They also released the local Japan version of Zoomer, renaming it the Omnibot Hello! Zoomer, an interactive dalmatian that can understand 45 English and Japanese words.
Takara Tomy’s awesome line of motion-activated samurai warrior were also christened the Omnibot Battroborg as a nod to the earlier toys.
In the late 1990′s we saw a more serious and forward-thinking application of home robo-pets with the Paro, the healing seal designed for the elderly and hospital patients who need some therapy from a cute companion.
But for many, the robotic pet will always be the AIBO, the massive hit for Sony (how it must dream of those days now) in the second half of the 1990′s.
It was rivaled by the Poo-chi in the early 2000′s, a collaboration between Hasbro and Sega.
This has also been updated with the Heart Energy Poochi, which Sega hopes will replicate some of the success of the earlier dog. Since our lives now have other devices in them, inter-device communication seems to be the trick the makers are playing now. In the Heart Energy Poochi’s case, it can interact with your Nintendo 3DS. And it goes without saying that he likes being stroked but will respond badly if you pull his tail.
Bandai also got in on the canine act a few years ago with the Smartpet Robot Dog, which lets you slot your iPod or iPhone into the dog’s head to make a face out of the screen. No animals were harmed in the development of this product!
Another classic in the genre is the Yume Neko Dream Cat by Sega Toys, which has very realistic internal sensors that respond to your touch. It started off as an interactive robotic cat, though it was followed by other animals like chicks, squirrels, puppies and rabbits.
The Yume Neko was given an update by Sega Toys recently as the Yume Neko Dream Cat Celeb, providing all the cute interaction of a feline friend without the hassle or mess. This is particularly important in Japan where many people living in apartments are not allowed by the landlord to own real pets. They turn to cat cafes and robots instead.
Of course, this isn’t just domestic manufacturers. The plush toy Furby is also undergoing a bit of a revival here, with Takara Tomy distributing the new model from Hasbro that responds to English commands and has upgraded eyes.
It forms part of a post-2010 trend for “huggable” plush robotic toys, the most sophisticated of which are aimed at helping infants and older kids sleep. The Hug & Dream Mickey and Minnier were big hits, though they were preceded by Takara Tomy’s pioneering Issho ni Nenne “womb doll”, which helped babies get better sleep cycles.
And big surprise, this has also been re-launched fairly recently as three new Disney character and Pooh versions.
Now this is going to be fast.
Kyodo News has reported that Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) has formally filed an application today with the Japanese transport ministry to build a maglev (magnetically levitated train) line between Tokyo and Nagoya.
Maglevs in Japan go back to the 1980′s. There are two trains, HSST by Japan Airlines and SCMaglev by the Central Japan Railway Company. The HSST train uses imported German technology, making the SCMaglev Japan’s only real homegrown maglev. One of the HSST models is the popular Linimo train, built for the 2005 Expo in Aichi, though it is relatively slow by maglev standards.
JR Tokai’s SCMaglev (Superconducting Maglev) started development back in 1969 but went through a radical redesign in time for a new test in 1987. Tests have been continuing on special tracks in Miyazaki and Yamanashi. In 2003 the SCMaglev achieved record speeds of 581 km/h (361 mph). The government deemed it ready for commercial rollout in 2009 and since then plans have been proceeding for the new linking the capital and Japan’s third city, to be followed by a further line connecting Nagoya with Osaka by 2045.
If the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry give the go-ahead, JR Tokai may start building the new SCMaglev in October, though we will have to wait until at least 2027 before the actual line is operational! But if that sounds like a long time to twiddle your thumbs, then consider how time you (or your kids) will save hopping from Tokyo to Nagoya in the future. As we know, the Shinkansen bullet train is fast. But this maglev will cut the 100 minutes that express takes down to a mere 40! Once extended to Osaka, a trip between Tokyo and Kansai will be just over an hour.
The cost of the construction of what may be the world’s fastest train is estimated at ¥9 trillion.
JR Tokai and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also hope that the SCMaglev will be adopted in America as an intercity system fit to meet the challenges of such a vast nation.
Batman no longer lives in Gotham. He’s fighting crime in Japan!
Japanese social media has been abuzz with some amazing images of Batman driving in his Batpod along the highways in the Tokyo area.
Okay, it’s not quite as good as it sounds. This “Batman” was spotted by motorists on the roads of Chiba, the prefecture next to Tokyo.
Some images of “Chi-battoman”, as he’s been dubbed, was snapped on Sunday afternoon and the images went viral on Twitter.
Other pictures soon followed.
All right, it’s not exactly Christopher Nolan but you’d still be impressed if you saw this Caped Crusader drive past you on the expressway.
We’d not sure how legal this Batpod is. At least at one point the driver attracted the attention of the police.
Of course, cosplay (costume play) on the mean streets of Japan is nothing new.
And if you want to drive around the city like you’re playing Mario Kart for real, you should check out Akiba Cart in Akihabara. It rents out go-karts that can be driven legally on regular roads. Not surprisingly, it attracts plenty of fun video game cosplay.
Japan may well be the land of home electronics (Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba et al) but on the whole apartments and houses are small. It only takes a few appliances for things to get very cluttered. But Japan is also the land of great design solutions to problems.
And so we have what we like to call “origami humidifiers”. Okay, so they’re not actually made from origami paper but they do work by evaporation rather than batteries or cords. In other words, the humidifier is a filter that water in a dish passes through to release moisture into the dry air. And they conjure up fantastic natural imagery that can transform clinical and bare Japanese urban apartments.
One recent example is the Uruoi Animal Forest, a veritable landscape painting of creatures and natural scenery. There is a trio of zoological sights here. Spot the wolf, the stag and the rabbits, each in its own vibrant colors.
The Uruoi humidifiers are a new series. Misty, on the other hand, have been around for a while and there are several variations on the market.
We especially love the Misty Tree, which is just that — a filter designed to look like foliage.
It also comes in a baby version.
The Misty Garden Second Apple Green will make you feel more like a gardener.
The most compact we’ve seen in a while is the Tower Pot Humidifier, which you pull out into a standing humidifier filter.
Meanwhile the Room Mist is now a standard model in this mini genre. It even comes in Hello Kitty and Disney versions.
As the humid summer gives way to the dry autumn and winter, perhaps it’s time to pop a humidifier like this on your desk?
Another day, another crazy use of English in the world of Tokyo retail?
But no, this isn’t another new entry in the long annals of places in Japan with unfortunate English names. The innuendo is deliberate.
Opening on Omotesando on September 5th, Shag — see what we mean? — is Japan’s first mainstream nightclub devoted to fashion and fetish. The name was inspired by Sex, the legendary boutique run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
Over three floors Tokyoites will be able to enjoy attending dress-code-only events that promise something a bit more exciting than the usual brand flagship stores that line the city’s most exclusive strip.
We love the concept behind Shag and its neat three words of copy: Bizarre Style Factory.
Cinematic influences should also be apparent.
The ground floor main hall space Asylum takes its cue from the cult 1997 British film “Preaching to the Perverted”, while the second-floor bar Cat Milk Bar is both erotic and stylish, in the manner of “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). Lounge bar Utamaro back on the ground floor again, is meant to be a cross between “Bladerunner” and the 1987 Japanese film “Yoshiware Enjo”. (For the uninitiated, Yoshiwara is the area of east Tokyo where the historical pleasure quarter was located, and even today it is home to a healthy sex trade.)
There are private karaoke rooms and a range of different cubbyholes to drink and make merry (we like the sound of the “Secret Relax Sofas” on both the floors). The people behind Shag hope the club will be hired out for events and parties.
It will make a very welcome contrast to the tony and pampered designer stores and expensive eateries of the Aoyama area, even if it might actually be more at home in Shinjuku or Akihabara.
Should we be too surprised by the arrival of a fetish nightclub in Aoyama? Well, Omotesando is already home to the quirky and popular Condomania… so perhaps no!
Funassyi just can’t be stopped. The pear (nashi) character that famously started off as an unofficial yuru-kyara mascot for Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture has become so popular that he now has his own cafe, the Funa Cafe.
He came out of nowhere in 2012, ranking a mere 506 out of 865 regional mascots from around Japan in one major “mascot contest”.
Funassyi is now on TV regularly, he has launched a veritable industry of DVDs, CDs, magazines, photo books, toys, games… everything.
Why is he so successful? Well, he can jump very high and pretend to play the guitar. And that’s about it as far as his special skills go. But perhaps it’s because he started off as an unofficial city mascot and people embraced the yellow underdog.
In September you can get a taste of Funassyi at the Funa Cafe in Shibuya Parco Part 1. Opening at The Guest Cafe & Diner on September 2nd and running for a limited time only until September 30th, customers can enjoy drinks, food, sweets and more, all with a Funassyi twist.
Take a look at these pictures and you’ll get an idea about how inventive the Funassyi-themed menu is!
The organizers have gone to a real effort here, creating a host of pear dishes and drinks, everything from pear juice soda to noodles. There will also be around 30 special items on sale, including aprons, mirrors, and more.
It’s actually the third themed cafe of its kind at the venue, following the wildly popular My Melody Cafe and Kiki and Lala Cafe which saw lines three hours long. It’s also a recreation of the Funa Cafe that appears in a picture book published by Parco.
Recently many people were excited by the artist-designed rooms at the Park Hotel Tokyo that let guests stay in spaces incorporating calligraphy and matsuri-inspired colorful murals. We’ll have to wait until 2016 for that project to be completed, when there should be an entire hotel floor of customized art rooms.
But if Hello Kitty is more your thing, you’re in for a real treat if you stay at the Keio Plaza Hotel in either Shinjuku, central Tokyo, and Tama, west Tokyo.
There are two types of rooms: Kitty Town and Princess Kitty.
Kitty Town is a pop design more suited for friends and families to stay in, while the Princess Kitty is filled with pinks and reds, and is probably better suited to couples or female guests who want to feel like a princess.
Reservations will be taken from September 1st. The rooms at the Shinjuku Keio Plaza cost ¥71,000 (around $700) for 1-3 persons. The Keio Tama Plaza rooms cost ¥28,000 (around $270) for single individuals, ¥31,000 (around $300) for two, or ¥35,000 (around $340) for three. (Prices are not including service charges or tax.)
The Keio Plaza Tama is also near Sanrio Puroland, the theme park for Sanrio characters like Hello Kitty, so we can see the hotel rooms being very popular with visitors wanting to give their day in the world of Sanrio a perfect finish.
Hello Kitty is on a mission for maximum exposure this year as it’s the fortieth anniversary since the Sanrio cat character came into our lives. So far we’ve seen Hello Kitty launched into space (!), a Hello Kitty train in Wakayama, and a tie-up with the Chogokin model series.
A little over a week ago people around the world began talking about a particular, and peculiar, Japanese beauty gadget.
Plus ça change, we hear some of you say.
But the Facial Fitness Pao Smile Trainer became the latest Japanese oddity to sweep the globe’s digital spheres not just because it is a rather unusual item but because its marketing prominently features Real Madrid football star Cristiano Ronaldo.
We’re not really sure of the connection between the biggest soccer player in the world today and a beauty gadget — surely Ronaldo of all people doesn’t need this! — but he appears in the posters and even a TV commercial.
Significantly, Ronaldo doesn’t actually try to use the Pao himself!
How does it work? All you do is pop the bar-shaped tool in your mouth and bob to swing it up and down. It will then help exercise your cheeks to give you a better, younger smile. The unique rhythmical technology is simple and charming, and has been created in consultation with experts so it’s intuitive but effective. You are meant to use it for two 30-second sessions per day and the balanced exercise created by the Pao apparently has a 94% success rate!
While a lot of people write these products off as more the usual “wacky Japan” nonsense — and it can understandably make expats in Japan angry that blogs like this even feature them — we think there’s more to it than that.
This is a genuine beauty gadget. But it is novel, bordering on the silly. The makers are aware of that and so, rather than risk being laughed at,they turn it into a marketing strategy. The silliness becomes if not part of the appeal, at least a way to gain attention and also to offset any unease people feel about these kinds of anti-aging products. It’s quite typical of Japanese companies to do this. Marketing for male baldness is also quite tongue-in-cheek in tone and one major campaign a few years ago for hair loss services successively employed two famous comedians. Laughter can be a greater way of communicating.
Not all beauty gadgets do this. Plenty of massage tools and so on are marketed and sold in perfectly ordinary ways. But this also makes certain products like the Beauty Lift High Nose that are both unusual in their design, functionality, and (perhaps, by extension) their presentation really stand out.
The MTG has obviously spent a lot of money. Firstly, they snagged Ronaldo to front the ads and brought him to Japan for a promo event. Everything is well-made. The music in the videos and the bright visuals make it very slick and professional. They made a special Pao website and spent money on getting decent copy and photos done. Many Japanese beauty products often come across as even more bizarre because the marketing, while sophisticated if you accept our argument above, is nonetheless quite cheap and shoddy. But here MTG have also got some other actors and models involved — keen-eyed Japanophiles might have spotted the ubiquitous veteran foreign performer Ian Moore, from the Navitime ads — and invested in lots of advertising. For us, the results are less wacky Japan and more United Colors of Benetton.
On a final note, keep in mind that this is not just Japan. The BBC also recently ran a very “wacky Japan”-esque article about a Chinese beauty trend called the “face-kini”.
ISIS has apparently captured a Japanese men in Aleppo with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Although still unverified and as yet to appear in the mainstream media at time of writing, images and videos have emerged of the man being held prisoner in Syria by ISIS (IS) soldiers. The man appears disheveled and slightly bloodied, but apparently not seriously injured.
According to links and videos shared initially by Thoton News Japan and others, his Islamic State captors claim he wouldn’t be dressed like he is if he were a photographer. They also claim he has a gun and demand to know why.
The Japanese man answers he is half a doctor, half a photographer. He says he got the gun from a dead soldier.
Here is the video of an impromptu interrogation seemingly immediately after his capture. He gives his name but the music soundtrack makes it hard to hear. It might be Haruna Yukawa, who seems to be a military contractor of some kind, working in Syria through his “private military company” PMC Japan. The first video shows the man being forced to repeat what his captors say.
While there was some earlier online speculation, the man does not seem to be the Japanese extreme tourist and amateur photographer Toshifumi Fujimoto, who has been known to turn up in war zones.
We will be updating as we learn more. For now, we hope the man is treated humanely and the Japanese government can assist him.
Update (August 18th)
The Japanese Embassy in Syria has said that they received information about the man’s capture on August 16th and are currently treating it as a kidnapping.
The videos originally posted have already been removed by the users. We found the first video elsewhere and reposted it.
Update (August 19th)
The consensus is that the man held captive is indeed military contractor Haruna Yukawa and he is certainly not a photographer or doctor, and that he has ties to the FSA, opposed by the Islamic State and the Syrian government.
However, Mr Yukawa’s fate is still uncertain and many of the original videos posted on YouTube have disappeared. This is unusual, since IS et al usually have no qualms about boasting of their activities in dealing with infidels and the like.
He would likely have considerable information that would be valuable to the enemies of the FSA and this may be too valuable to IS simply to execute a pesky foreign adventurist involved in their war. Japan also has a record of paying generous ransoms to so-called “terrorist” groups in the past and the IS may even be hoping for something along those lines (given the size and resources of the Islamic State, though, this is a long shot).
[Images via KhabarTV.]