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Mon, Apr 07, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Takara reinvents playing around


Toymaker Masahiko Kajita, 41, shows his 2002 Ig Nobel Peace Prize awarded from a US-based science humor magazine at the Takara Co's headquarters in Tokyo last month. Some of his other inventions are also shown.


Masahiko Kajita is not exactly a household name, but this Doctor Dolittle of Japan's No.2 toymaker, Takara Co is the brains behind the smash-hit dog-language electronic interpreter Bowlingual.

Kajita, 41, took charge of Takara's "Dr Dolittle Project" in August 2001 and developed Bowlingual, after establishing a long pedigree of wacky gizmos ranging from the "romantic bus stop" to a time bomb alarm clock for the company.

One of Takara's top salesmen for 18 years, Kajita switched to the creative side in 1999 after criticizing his wares once too often.

At the time Takara was suffering from weak sales despite its high brand recognition as the manufacturer of Licca-chan dolls, a Japanese version of Barbie.

"I was such a brash salesman and always complaining about products that I was told to make them myself," he said.

Takara's road to recovery came after Keita Sato, second son of the founder Yasuta Sato, took control and embarked on a shake-up of the 45-year old company in 2000.

Kajita said he hung up on a call from a head-hunter and decided to stay on after Sato gave him a freer hand at work.

The result was the "Nanchatte" (just kidding) series of tricky toys, starting from January 2000 with Kajita's banana-shaped handset for use with cellphones, which proved to be a hit and helped revive the fortunes of the near-bankrupt company.

The series later included lurid pink paper tissue holder that sets off a female voice panting in erotic delight whenever it is used. The product has since been taken off market.

More popular items still on sale include his "Let's Beer Great," syphon and beer tap for a single can of beer that allows the home drinker to play barman for ¥3,480 (US$29.50).

For those who want to taste a life of luxury on the cheap, "Cleopatra's Bath" -- at ¥3,480 a golden lion-head fountainhead made of plastic which sticks to the wall with a sucker -- takes in water from the bathtub and returns it out of its mouth.

Before Bowlingual, Kajita also came up with the cheap and cheeful "Romantic Bus Stop" to get round one of the stickier areas of human communication.

The toy is a replica of a request-stop button from a bus that can be stuck on the dashboard of a car. When a passenger pushes it, it says "The next stop is the final one -- my room."

Kajita also dreamed up a way to start one's day with a bang with his "Dynamite" time bomb alarm that drops from the ceiling with a boom when the time comes.

A whimsical offer for the executive with a tight budget is the "Oh! Note" stylish black laptop computer, which turns out to be just a white board and a pen when opened.

Married with two teenage sons and a two-year-old daughter, Kajita said he ignores common sense and develops whatever he feels like, but does not try his ideas out on his own children.

"I never talk about my job at home. I don't bring work home ... I'm developing what I want. I can enjoy myself by making funny goods," he said.

But his instincts are not unerring: "I dropped the idea of a high-heeled shoe phone as the heel sticks in your ear," Kajita recalled, and he is aware that his sense of fun must be grounded in the hard-nosed realities of business.

When company president Sato launched a real single-seat electric car modelled on Takara's long-selling toy vehicles last year Kajita said his immediate thought was "the next thing should be a jet."

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