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Japan's edutainment star Shimajiro out to win over Thai kids

Benesse ties up with CP Group on TV show and merchandise

A children's TV show featuring Shimajiro and dubbed into Thai began airing in Thailand in February. 

BANGKOK -- For parents the world over, teaching young kids the basics of good hygiene -- potty training, teeth-brushing -- and introducing things like reading can seem a daunting challenge.

Enter Japanese education services company Benesse Holdings and its character Shimajiro, a friendly tiger. The specialist in correspondence courses tries to make early childhood learning fun for kids and easier for anxious parents. Faced with a shrinking, aging population at home, Benesse is pushing into new markets in Asia.

In Thailand, the company is airing a children's educational cartoon in a tie-up with Japanese trading house Itochu and Charoen Pokphand Group, the country's biggest conglomerate.

"Today is a historic day. The world-famous character Shimajiro has finally been brought to Thailand," said Birathon Kasemsri Na Ayudhaya, chief content and media officer at True Corp., the telecoms unit of CP Group.

Haruna Okada, Benesse's corporate executive vice president, said the company decided to target Thailand because Thais and Japanese have similar views on child rearing.

"And we were able to partner with Charoen Pokphand, which is strong in business-to-consumer," said Okada, who heads the overseas promotion effort for Benesse's Kodomo Challenge correspondence course, an early-childhood educational program featuring Shimajiro.

Two episodes per day of the Shimajiro program air on paid children's channel in Thailand. The project took about three years to bring to fruition. Itochu, which has a capital tie-up with CP Group, acted as go-between between Benesse and the Thai conglomerate.

By the end of the year, Itochu plans to introduce clothing, toys and other Shimajiro novelty items in Thailand. "The idea is to start airing the anime first to establish a fan base, then sell goods. Lastly, we will introduce the education service," said Masahiro Morofuji, Itochu's managing executive officer.

Benesse has brought the same anime program to South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia, and to China as a video streaming service to meet the country's tighter regulations.

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia's most populous country, Benesse developed the business model of introducing the anime first and following it up with educational services. Broadcasts of the show started in Indonesia in 2017, The correspondence course was launched in the country in July 2018.

The course, which teaches things liking potty training and tooth brushing to preschoolers, costs about $18 to $27 a month and includes home deliveries of books, DVDs and toys.

Benesse's customer base in Indonesia is small but "growing," Okada said, thanks to price cuts and other measures. The same business model will be used in Thailand. Benesse is looking to Southeast Asia for growth due to its young population and favorable attitude toward Japanese people and culture.

"Thais generally think of Japanese as being polite and having good manners," True's Birathon said. "[The] Shimajiro [course] provides a Japanese-style education that forms the foundation of that culture, so it has a great chance for success in Thailand."

Localized versions of the company's Kodomo Challenge course feature the same content as the course developed in Japan. There are tweaks for specific markets, such as the use of a rabbit toy in predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, instead of the pig toy used in Japan.

In China, the number of registered users totaled about 1.15 million at the end of April 2018, compared with 790,000 in Japan, but Benesse faces tough competition in China, Okada said. Benesse considers factors such as the size of the market and birthrates, as well as regulations on foreign corporate ownership, when considering entering a new country, she said, adding, "the Philippines and Malaysia look promising."

Shimajiro is becoming well known in Asia. In January, "Shimajiro: A World of WOW!" was named the best preschool program at the 2018 Asian Television Awards.

Last year, Benesse created the Global Kodomo Challenge Company, a division headed by Okada that aims to increase overseas sales. In the year ended March 2018, such sales made up 7% of Benesse's revenue, mostly due to the expansion in Asia and a focus on preschool education.

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