Behind Japanese Innovation: a Love of Gadgets

Made-in-Japan items include pocket-size camcorders, talking car-navigation maps

A set of speakers in Motomi Ako's audio store can cost as much as a new car. "We sell only the highest quality products," enthuses Mr. Ako, a garrulous salesman with a high regard for high fidelity. The store doesn't usually mess around with video cameras, but this year is different.

"It's so small," Ako exclaims about JVC's GR-DV1, which is displayed front and center in his store's window. The full-featured digital camcorder is about the size of a paperback thriller. It weighs just over a pound.

"Some of our audio fanatics suggested we carry it," Ako explains, referring to customers. The shop sells about one of these $2,000 devices each week - a rate he deems "explosive." Indeed, initial sales in Japan suggest the GR-DV1 is poised to become a breakaway product, a high-selling gadget that will appeal to people who didn't even know they wanted one. It is now on sale in America and will hit Europe soon.

It's no surprise that this technological marvel emerged from this country: Constant refinement is a hallmark of Japanese corporate strategy, one that the country's lingering recession does not seem to have stifled. Consumer-electronics firms here have a knack for developing and marketing products that initially seem unworkable or too costly.

In coming up with these products and turning them into profit centers, companies here have an advantage: the Japanese adoration for things high-tech. This is a country where toaster ovens, rice cookers, and irons appear in ever more computerized versions. A neighborhood shopping area in Tokyo is rarely without its electric-appliance store, which seems as much a part of the local streetscape as fruit vendors or dry-cleaners.

Even Sony Corp. executive Hirohito Kawada has already bought one of JVC's little camcorders. He doesn't seem bothered to admit owning a product made by a key rival. Japanese have a bit of a "snobbish sensibility" when it comes to gadgets, he explains. "They want to try new technology, even at a high price."

"Japanese consumers are in general far more receptive and sensitive to new ideas" than those in other nations, says Chuck Goto, head of research at Smith Barney International's Tokyo office. "Japanese companies are in some ways working with the best target population in the world."

What works well here is invariably marketed overseas.

One example is the Zaurus "personal information tool" from Sharp Corp. The hand-held gadget functions as an organizer, a modest word-processor, and a communication device for sending faxes or reading e-mail.

The Japanese version, with prices ranging from about $750 to $1,500 wows users with its ability to offer definitions and pronunciations of obscure Japanese characters when the user scrawls them with a plastic stylus on Zaurus's 5-inch screen.

Sharp is eager to translate Japanese success into sales overseas. Company officials say the English-language Zaurus, which relies on a miniature keyboard for data entry, has captured 35 percent of the US market for so-called personal digital assistants. That makes Zaurus the leader in a market it entered in February 1995, two years after its debut in Japan.

Sony, meanwhile, has big plans for its car-navigation system in foreign markets. This technology, originally developed for the military, uses signals from orbiting satellites to pinpoint a car's location. A dashboard-mounted electronic map and audible instructions help the driver find destinations.

After becoming the early leader in Japan's now-crowded car-navigation market, Sony is heading overseas. In May, it agreed to acquire Etak Inc. a developer of digital map data in Menlo Park, Calif.

But at $2,000, "the key device is too expensive," says Mr. Kawada, who heads Sony's Digital Map Project. Still, some Japanese consumers were willing to buy them at $10,000 a few years ago, giving Sony reason to continue efforts to make it cheaper, smaller, and easier to use.

This year, as many as a million Japanese consumers may purchase car-navigation systems.

"For many members of Japan's younger generation, this is one of the new weapons for a date with a girlfriend," Kawada jokes.

Now Sony and others are broadening applications for their navigation systems. Kawada says the device, when coupled with a cellular phone, could be used to notify police of an emergency at the press of a button, automatically relaying where the car is located. Then there's the portable version, which Kawada takes on business trips. He sets it up in a rental car, and the system tells him how to drive to his hotel.

At JVC's Tokyo headquarters, executives await results of the GR-DV1's foray overseas. The camcorder's domestic sales have been robust: Production began at 10,000 units a month in December and was doubled in March.

Executive Yasuomi Namiki holds one of the camcorders in his hands and emphasizes the preeminent feature - its size. The device relies on several technological advances, but Mr. Namiki says the important thing is that it reduces stage fright among shy children. "This machine doesn't disturb the situation. It's a kind of invisible camera."

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