Japanese culture is one of the fastest moving, most mutable and just plain weirdest on the planet. Perhaps it has something to do with history. With some several thousand years of advanced society under its belt, Japan has a hell of a lot of art, literature, cuisine, religion and politics to draw upon. Maybe it's the population. With the world's 10th largest citizenry, Japan currently boasts some 128 million people contributing to its culture on a daily basis. Of course, it could be related to the level of technology the country has achieved. Information flows through that society so fast now that trends are measured in minutes instead of months.
To the outsider, Japanese pop culture is a tangled, near-inscrutable mixture of the imported (Italian restaurants, coffee bars, blue jeans) and the homegrown (anime, cell phone dangles, tentacle porn). Paying attention to Japanese trends isn't a bad idea, however. Whatever was big in Tokyo last week will probably be huge in America six months from now. In 1995, for example, Japan introduced Puri-Kura (those tiny photo sticker booths, also known as “Print Club”). By the late ’90s, they had invaded every mall in America. Videogames, cartoons and comic books are all industries dominated by the Japanese right now. (Don't believe me? Check out the manga section of any chain bookstore.)
So what's the up-and-coming “it” thing? Well, what about gashapon?
“What the hell are gashapon?” you may ask. Gashapon are small, high-quality plastic toys in colorful round plastic capsules sold in vending machines throughout Japan. They aren't all that different from the capsule toys we see in American gumball machines. Except they're expensive, highly collectable and not generally intended for kids. The word “gashapon” is an onomatopoeia consisting of two sounds: “Gasha” is intended to mimic the noise of the crank turning on a toy vending machine and “pon” is the sound of the capsule dropping into the receptacle. (Those Japanese are clever.) Gashapon machines can be found all over Japan, alongside their larger cousins that dispense everything from beer to CDs to—yes—used panties. (Japan has an estimated one vending machine for every 23 people.)
Unlike American capsule toys, gashapon are made of high-grade PVC plastic and can cost anywhere from 100-500 yen (about $1-$5). Many of the figurines, keychains, mini-bobbleheads and screw-on water bottle toppers found in gashapon machines are based on popular character licenses from Japanese manga, videogames and anime. Even those not based on popular icons can become big sellers. Several years ago, Bandai, the biggest producer of capsule toys with 65 percent of the current market, brought out a line of “My Elementary School” toys. This nostalgic, miniaturized line of backpacks, lunchboxes and notebooks from the ’70s and ’80s sold 2.4 million units in less than a year. Some gashapon depict nudity, bondage and—yes—tentacle porn and are intended for adult consumers. Still others are the work of well-known artists. Jim Woodring, James Jarvis, Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Pete Fowler, Jitoshi Odajima and Tim Biskup have all produced limited-edition gashapon figures. The market is driven primarily by collectors, who attempt to gather every piece in a particular line. Early Godzilla and Ultraman sets have gone for more than $300 on Yahoo Japan auctions.
The roots of this tiny collectable market date back to 1927 when the Ezaki Glico company introduced “Nutritious Sweets with Premium Toy,” a small toy packaged with candy—the Japanese equivalent of Cracker Jack. According to the Yano Research Insititute, the “toy with sweets” industry hit its high point in 2002, raking in 102.7 billion yen (something like $859 million). Around that time, the Japan Toy Association created a new “capsule toy” division and began collecting statistics on them. The toy capsule market for 2005 totaled over 3.5 billion yen ($29 million) in Japan alone. With savvy retailers and Internet sellers now importing the collectable toys (six-toy sets sell for around $25), it's only a matter of time before gashapon machines invade an arcade, a mall or a comic book store near you. Get your quarters ready!