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Solar-Powered Flashlight? Japanese-Made Items Are on Cutting Edge of Wackiness

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sure, you know about the Walkman stereo headsets and the Honda Civics, those archetypal Japanese products that have conquered many a foreign market.

But what about the “Mr. Drink-Too-Much” portable breath analyzer for woozy bar patrons, the anti-dry mouth candy for Scuba divers, and the award-winning solar-powered flashlight?

Behind the Japanese consumer products of mass appeal is a rich vein of truly unconventional items, the ones that may not be coming to a local store near you any time soon.

Since the mid-1980s, when the domestic consumer market was booming and companies were diversifying, Japanese “have had a high level of interest in anything novel,” said Peter Fuchs, editor-in-chief of Business Tokyo magazine, which devotes a regular section to innovative products.

Some find a small niche and catch on. One example would be Meeyan, the candy preferred by Scuba divers because it won’t stick in their throats and helps get rid of dry mouth.

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The candy was introduced last April, selling for about $2 a box. Eitaro Sohonpo Co. sold $36,200 worth last year and expects sales to go up as much as ninefold this year.

Or how about the odor-eating pantyhose and polo shirts that, according to the Nikkei Industrial Daily, are finding a ready market “among women concerned over their olfactory impressions?”

Other novel products apparently struggle to win acceptance, such as a recently marketed device worn on one’s belt to record how many calories the bearer is putting on or burning off.

The Life Calorie, priced at $70, “isn’t selling as well as expected,” said a company official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Not all Japanese who dream up novel products have profit in mind. Some just want to have fun.

Their ideas are depicted in the pages of Direct Mail Life magazine, whose Kenji Kawakami receives more than 50 written ideas a month from readers who come up with products too wacky even for the eccentric Japanese market.

Each year, the magazine, with a circulation of 1.3 million, awards $365 for the best idea. One of Kawakami’s favorites was a runner-up last year.

“I really like this,” he said as he pointed to a photo of a solar-powered flashlight. To make sure the value of the product was clear, he gleefully explained: “You can’t use this in the darkness.”


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