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New Japanese toys aren’t just for the kids

Toys aren't just for kids anymore at Japan's biggest toy show, where the latest in high-tech gadgetry is sharing the stage with the nostalgic and the familiar.
Japan Toy Show
A model displays the world's smallest, 7cm cubic, karaoke box at the Tokyo Toy Show 2008 on Thursday.Katsumi Kasahara / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Toys aren't just for kids anymore at Japan's biggest toy show, where the latest in high-tech gadgetry is sharing the stage with the nostalgic and the familiar.

Japan's toy makers — faced with declining birthrates — rolled out an array of products at the 2008 International Tokyo Toy Show to bring out the inner child in even the oldest grown-ups.

At Tokyo-based Gakken Co.'s booth, three men in their 70s huddled around one of the company's latest products — a mini plastic hand-cranked 8mm film projector.

"I have a real one at home," said Sumio Kikuma. "But I don't use it anymore because it's hard to maintain. This one here might be good as a backup."

Drawing big crowds Thursday was Sega's "Eternal Maiden Actualization," a 15-inch busty female robot that offers companionship for lonely men. She retails for about $175 and can kiss, dance and hand out business cards.

The Japanese toy industry's efforts to aggressively expand its market beyond children has helped reverse a steady decline in sales in recent years. In fiscal 2007, which ended in March, the industry logged 670.9 billion yen ($6.2 billion) in domestic sales, up 3 percent from the previous year.

The Japan Toy Association credits the growth to "diversified and expanded sales networks" and "new business areas that it had not given any thought to in the past."

Especially hot last year were card games and girls' toys, according to the association. The biggest disappointments were "high-tech trendy" toys, which plunged nearly 50 percent in sales due to a dearth of major hits.

This year, the association predicts success for toys that revive popular characters of yesteryear — Power Rangers, the Anpanman cartoon hero, Sylvanian Families — as well as adult-oriented toys.

Bruno Van Speybroeck, chief operating officer for Upper Deck Europe, said his eye was caught by Hot Toys, a Hong-Kong-based company that makes high-end action figures from movies such as Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien.

Targeting adults and collectors, the company said its replicas are making inroads with finicky Japanese consumers, who typically dismiss foreign toys as inferior.

Japan is now Hot Toys' biggest market, followed by the United States, said Franck Dubois, chief executive of Hot Toys Japan.

"It proves that foreign companies can make it in Japan," he said. "The key to succeed here is matching or exceeding their quality."

Others rely on simplicity and human habits, albeit behaviors not necessarily common in the United States.

Takara Tomy showcased Pen'z Gear, a series of pens optimized for people who enjoy pen-spinning, something akin to baton twirling done with a writing instrument. Honored as a "trendy toy" by the Japan Toy Association, they even come with a DVD to help perfect pen-spinning techniques.

Bandai scored big last year with a plastic charm that replicates the addictive sensation of popping bubble wrap. It is hoping for similar success with its latest creation — a plastic soybean pod that when pinched together simulates the feeling of pushing out a bean. In Japan, boiled soybeans are commonly eaten as a snack.

About 36,000 items from 134 companies and organizations are showcased at the Tokyo toy show, which runs for four days through Sunday.