Japan's capsule toys are a big business

The capsule toy craze took off in 2012 when the “Koppu no Fuchico” series (above), featuring figurines of women designed to hang over the edge of  a glass, gained a following among adults.
The capsule toy craze took off in 2012 when the “Koppu no Fuchico” series (above), featuring figurines of women designed to hang over the edge of a glass, gained a following among adults. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO •A tiny replica of an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and a plastic cat squatting on sushi. Those are just two of the weird and wonderful capsule toys that have become a multi-million-dollar craze in cute-obsessed Japan.

The industry is worth an estimated 30 billion yen (S$360 million), with the fastidious attention to detail in the toys appealing to the Japanese sense of precision, along with a well-documented love of all things "kawaii" or cute.

One store, in Tokyo's famous Akihabara electronics district, is crammed with about 500 capsule toy vending machines stretching out as far as the eye can see.

"When I see something I want, I keep on turning the crank until I get it," said care worker Shota Makita, 23, one of a growing number of adult consumers of capsule toys, known as "gachagacha" or "gachapon" in Japanese after the cranking sound.

Capsule toys have been around for more than 40 years, but the craze really took off in 2012, when Tokyo-based manufacturer Kitan Club launched its "Koppu no Fuchico" ("Fuchico at the edge of a glass") product. This figurine of a woman wearing a typical office worker's clothes, whose arms or legs were designed to hang over the edge of a glass, became an instant hit with adults.

"We never thought of targeting children. Their numbers are dwindling and adults have more money," said spokesman Seita Shiki.

He chalked up the Fuchico capsule toy's success to the fact that it is "cheap and Instagram-worthy".

Fans have been sharing photos of Fuchico on social media, which helped boost its popularity without the company even needing to advertise, he said.

"Fuchico was launched just as social media started to be used widely. It fitted with the times."

Kitan Club, which makes various kinds of capsule toys, saw its sales grow from 800 million yen to 1.2 billion yen after the launch of the Fuchico series.

The capsule toy became so popular that the company was asked to create a pop-up shop at the cult French concept store Colette and to hold an exhibition in Taiwan.

Now many manufacturers are making capsule toys to appeal to adult consumers, helping to expand the market to about 100 new items each month.

Manufacturer Bandai, which occupies about 70 per cent of the capsule toy market, said the products sell well because they are expertly made and come in huge varieties.

When it began making capsule toys exactly 40 years ago in 1977, the majority of them were cheap, sold mostly at 20 yen and were of poor quality, general manager Toshikazu Saita said.

"A wide variety of quality products are available at only 200 or 300 yen. I think that's a reason they're so popular now," he said.

He said the quality of the products was down to specialists who "hand-carve prototypes by paying attention to angles and colours".

But to keep costs down, the actual toys are manufactured in China.

Mr Shiki of Kitan Club agreed that attention to detail was what set Japanese capsule toys apart.

"For example, Fuchico's knees and elbows are slightly sprayed with red paint to make them look real," he explained. "This adds one extra step, but we feel we have to do this" even if it adds to the cost.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's capsule toys are a big business'. Print Edition | Subscribe