TV & Radio
Cover Story/ Royal allure:Japanese love brand-name products, and nothing has a greater cachet than the imperial family.
By TARO KARASAKI, Staff Writer
This is the fifth part of a series on issues and topics facing the imperial family.
Part 1: Imperial Family/ Uncharted terrain:Those who do not want females or their descendants to become emperor feel stymied.
Mao Komuro was searching an Internet bookshop looking for some bedtime reading for her 18-month-old daughter when a blurb stopped her in her tracks. "Crown Princess Masako's favorite," trumpeted the entry for "Goodnight Moon," by U.S. children's writer Margaret Wise Brown.
Although Komuro was unfamiliar with the title, the Masako connection was almost spellbinding--she had to have the book.
Komuro, a 33-year-old Tokyo homemaker, said: "I was under the impression that since our daughter enjoyed Aiko's favorites, she would enjoy Masako's favorite, too."
She said that over the past year she's developed an appreciation for products favored by Masako's daughter, Princess Aiko. Before that, she had no particular feelings for the imperial family one way or another, she said.
When she saw Brown's book, she thought of how much her baby enjoyed the same picture book that TV news-variety shows said Crown Princess Masako had read many times to Aiko.
Then, there were the cute animal slippers Komuro picked up in a children's clothing shop, whose tag bragged "Aiko's favorite."
Komuro next signed her little girl up for a calisthenics class. These classes became de rigueur for many moms after the toddler princess was seen dancing in video footage aired by news-variety shows.
Brown's book turned out to be a disappointment when it arrived. Calling the purchase "a bad choice," Komuro said the illustrations were "somewhat drab" and the story was too difficult for a toddler.
No more official certification
For merchants, having their wares selected for use by the imperial family has been both an honor and sales tool dating back as far as medieval times. And though a system to officially certify such products was discontinued more than half a century ago, the allure of goods favored by royalty still remains strong, thanks in great part to publicity generated by the media, imperial watchers say.
Purveyors to the imperial family, often referred to as goyotashi, who supply goods ranging from soy sauce and exotic fruit to kimono and umbrellas, enjoy a huge following in this brand-conscious country.
Critics see the phenomenon as a textbook example of the blind faith Japanese place in brand-name products.
For German stuffed toy manufacturer Steiff, recognition by members of the imperial family helped it win a crucial foothold in this country.
According to officials at Takara Co., the toy maker's marketing agent in Japan since 1988, Steiff's high-priced products had underperformed for years.
All that changed in 1994 when TV viewers glimpsed Steiff's trademark yellow tag on a teddy bear owned by Princess Mako, the eldest daughter of Prince Fumihito, younger brother of Crown Prince Naruhito.
TV broadcasters were inundated with calls from parents and grandparents about the unfamiliar toy. In the twinkling of an eye, shoppers descended on Steiff's flagship store in Tokyo's Ginza district, snatching up the bear, known as Molly. Now named "Princess Molly" and selling for 8,925 yen, it remains a favorite, with some 1,000 bears sold each year.
Another Steiff toy, a small stuffed elephant, shot from obscurity to stardom after magazines listed the doll as one of Princess Aiko's favorite toys. Today, Steiff sells 30 to 40 of the elephants a month.
"Recognition by the imperial family helped people understand the history behind Steiff products, and the work that goes into each doll, in a way that previous marketing methods could not achieve," said Yoshiko Shimoda, an official in charge of Steiff's Japan operations.
While having your product chosen by a member of the imperial family can certainly help, it is no guarantee of success, particularly when the economy isn't exactly purring along.
In July 2005, a tofu supplier to the Imperial Household Agency filed for bankruptcy. The manufacturer, based in Mitsukaido, Ibaraki Prefecture, was struggling with a debt of almost 5 billion yen when it could no longer keep its head above water.
"It came as a shock, because most of the employees didn't think such a thing could happen to a goyotashi business," said a spokesman for the company. The brand name, now held by another food manufacturer, continues to survive, but production volume has been slashed.
Hard-won imperial recognition can actually backfire, if unscrupulous businesses emulate styles, methods or even steal whole designs.
The Nishijin Textile Industrial Association has decreed that member weavers should "refrain from using the phrase goyotashi in advertisements." This policy was adopted at the end of a kimono makers meeting held in autumn 2004 to counter fakes.
Toshimitsu Ikariyama, a senior association official, said his organization still receives five to 10 inquiries a month from wholesalers concerned about claims from manufacturers who purport to have supplied kimono to the imperial family. He said he personally knew of five companies untruthfully asserting a royal connection.
While kimono makers in the Nishijin district of Kyoto do in fact supply clothing to the imperial household, "never will you hear a real merchant say so" Ikariyama said.
The hype over the imperial family's favorite products is simply an extension of Japan's brand consciousness, says Mei Sasaki, a journalist and former guest professor at Tama Art University who specializes in intellectual property issues.
"It reflects a desire to acquire status through the possession of brands. At the same time, it shows a lack of confidence (in one's judgment)," Sasaki said.
While brand consciousness exists in many Western countries too, those who favor brands are also careful in choosing products and are aware of the history and quality behind a product, he says.
The royal brand
Calling the imperial family itself a brand, Sasaki said that several years ago on a study trip to South Korea, he witnessed knockoff businesses avidly following news footage of Masako. Their interest was more than casual--they watched what she wore, what products she was interested in so they could "steal designs and make copycat products for the Japanese market."
Still, the allure seems to be contagious.
In mid-November, news programs covering the marriage of Princess Sayako to commoner Yoshiki Kuroda discussed traditional imperial household wedding gifts that would be handed out to guests. Hearing that konpeito--a kind of rock candy whose distinctive studded form is likened by some to a meteorite--was on the list, hundreds of people flocked to the 150-year-old confectionary shop Ryokujuan Shimizu in Kyoto.
As long lines formed in front of the old-fashioned shop, Kyoto taxis added the candy store to their tours of the ancient capital.
Overwhelmed, the operators of Ryokujuan said they couldn't possibly meet the unexpected demand while sticking to a recipe that required boiling sugar in giant kettles over a period of two weeks to 20 days.
"I can't recall when I last had konpeito. But when I saw it, I thought right away, that's what I want," said Miki Uchiyama, a 25-year-old company employee from Tsu, Mie Prefecture. She added that she was quite moved by a story she heard about why konpeito was chosen for the wedding: Just as hard work and perseverance are the secret to a happy marriage, the effort required to create konpeito is much the same.
Alas, the imperial family does not have the same hold on everyone. Her boyfriend, not willing to wait another half hour for the candy, however romantic, took a hike--to find a convenience store to kill some time.(IHT/Asahi: January 6,2006)