Comeback kids: Japan's 2017 hits so far, ranked sumo-style
Triumphant underdogs, changeovers capture hearts of Japanese consumers
TOKYO -- The classic comeback story is a common thread in Japan's top headline makers of 2017 so far. Our sumo-style East-West banzuke ranking looks at what phenomena, products and services have moved consumers by ultimately prevailing in the manner of Kisenosato, the country's first native-born sumo yokozuna grand champion in 19 years.
Kisenosato is, of course, our own East yokozuna as well. He overcame past struggles in the ring to score a long-desired first tournament victory in January, then pushed through injuries some thought would take him out of the running and won the spring tournament in March -- his first tourney as yokozuna. The excitement swept into related consumer activity, with advance tickets for the May tournament selling out in an hour and a half. With the promotion of Kisenosato's junior stablemate Takayasu to the second-highest rank of ozeki, sumo fever looks likely to rage on.
The West yokozuna is Nintendo's Switch game console, which scored big among consumers with an innovative design that makes it playable with or without a television. This hybrid system sold 2.74 million units worldwide in its first month, and the company plans to ship a total of 12.7 million by the end of March 2018. In a video game market where smartphone titles now dominate, Nintendo's show of potential appears to have resonated with fans.
The East and West ozeki also represent feats of business finesse in harsh environments. In the East is the package delivery rate hike by Yamato Transport, which highlighted the possibility that convenient, Japanese-style delivery services could be on their last legs. The Yamato Holdings unit was forced to raise prices for the first time in 27 years as its home delivery service creaked under the weight of massive parcel volumes spurred by online shopping -- a problem exacerbated by Japan's labor shortage. The hike clearly has its downsides for consumers. But public awareness of a crisis in the door-to-door delivery industry has also generated a response, such as an increase in sales of delivery lockers.
The West ozeki is Tokyo's megalithic new Ginza Six mall. The shopping center sits on prime real estate in Tokyo's ritzy Ginza district formerly occupied by the Matsuzakaya department store. Amid a slowing birthrate and an aging population, plus slumping apparel sales, Japan's department store industry stands at a crossroads. Ginza Six has charted a new course by gathering top brands, as well as offering a variety of nonshopping experiences, such as art installations, and has drawn eyes for its departure from traditional department store strategy.
Despite dwindling car ownership among young people, Toyota Motor captured support even among that demographic with the cutting-edge design and comfortable driving style of its C-HR compact sport utility vehicle, which won the third-highest rank of sekiwake for the East. For the West sekiwake, following the automobile theme, was the slashing of the base taxi fare in Tokyo to 410 yen ($3.75 at current rates) from 730 yen.
Next, the East and West komusubi ranks went to power players between the ages of 10 and 20. In the East was Souta Fujii, a middle school shogi player who went pro at age 14 and sustained a 20-win streak following his debut. The West komusubi was Miu Hirano, a teenage table tennis star gaining worldwide recognition. The rise of these whiz kids has not only appealed to fans, but also spurred consumption by getting more young people into shogi and table tennis.
Two very different books topped the multiple slots for the maegashira rank. In the East was globally acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami's new novel, "Kishidancho Goroshi" ("Killing Commendatore"). The book flexed its muscles by selling more than 1.38 million copies even amid a publishing slump. The West's unusual hit, selling more than 2.27 million copies, was the "Unko Kanji Doriru" ("Poop Kanji Drills") writing workbooks. Designed to help primary school students learn kanji characters while having fun, the workbooks offer drills dotted with a word rarely seen in learning materials.