Capsule Toys

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Co-host

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Wacky Kaiyama

    Main guest

    A comedian and personality based in Sendai, self-styled “capsulist” Wacky Kaiyama is an avid collector of capsule toys whose collection, started in his second year of primary school, now numbers over 100,000. Kaiyama has also published many writings on the subject.

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June 20, 2017

Capsule Toys

*You will leave the NHK website.

Pop quiz: what country has the highest density of vending machines in the world? That’s right: Japan! Okay, that wasn’t a particularly tough quiz – the show is called Japanology Plus, after all. Even those who have never set foot in Japan have likely heard tales of the country’s huge number of vending machines (for the record, there are about 5 million, or about one for every 23 people) and the unique items they offer.

Today’s edition of Japanology Plus is about a specific type of vending machine—or, more accurately, what comes out of those machines: small plastic capsules containing toys. These capsule toys, which retail from 100-500 yen, range from anime- and video game-inspired figures for kids to tongue-in-cheek toys for adults, but they all share a high level of quality and, as co-host Matt Alt puts it, these tiny but detailed toys encapsulate many aspects of Japanese culture.

Capsule toys, also referred to as gachapon for the sounds you hear as each toy is released from the vending machine, first came to Japan from the U.S. in 1965. At that time, each one cost 10 yen, and that held steady for almost a decade until the oil crisis of the 1970s forced the price up to 20 yen. But, as guest Wacky Kaiyama points out, the early toys were simple, monochromatic and lacking in what would later make Japanese capsule toys so unique.

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Wacky Kaiyama is one of Japan’s foremost experts on capsule toys and owns over 100,000 himself.

Japan’s first real “capsule toy boom” came in the early ’80s, when toy makers made two important changes: putting a greater emphasis on quality and offering licensed toys based on the popular manga, anime and video games of the day. The so-called second boom, which came about a decade later, involved capsule toys aimed at adults, such as the cup-adorning “office ladies” pictured below. Other capsule toys popular among grown-ups include (relatively) practical items, like tiny smartphone-powered fans, detailed replicas of the figures they owned as children, and gag toys with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

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These cup-hanging toys have been a massive hit, selling over three million units.

It can be a bit of a shock to first-time visitors to Japan—it was to this author, at least—to see so many grown men and women walking around with toys strapped to their bags or smartphones with no hint of embarrassment. As Matt explains, though, the current generation of adults in Japan grew up on gachapon, and gachapon makers grew up with them, continually crafting toys to appeal to those in their 20s, 30s and beyond. As Wacky Kaiyama notes, these toys can be a source of stress relief in Japan’s high-pressure work environment. And some capsule toys, like the maneki-neko, or beckoning cats, seen in the show, are miniaturized versions of good-luck charms that have been a part of Japanese culture for many years.

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More examples of “Japanese history-turned-capsule toy”: Shinto thunder deity Raijin.

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A 3D version of a 12th-century scroll sometimes referred to as the first manga.

Plenty of people from outside Japan have gotten hooked on the capsule toy experience too, and visitors on the hunt for the toys don’t have to look far: they can be found at most electronics retailers, video game arcades and even some supermarkets. Hardcore capsule hunters in Tokyo should definitely make their way to subculture central Akihabara, where Peter Barakan and Matt Alt meet up near the beginning of the show; while those visiting Osaka should check out Den-Den Town. Some shops in those neighborhoods have even done the hard work of assembling all the toys from specific series into sets, though for many people the actual process of using the gachapon machine is half the fun. If you’re about to leave the country and suddenly realize you forgot to do any capsule-ing, don’t worry—even Japan’s international airports have gotten in on the game.

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Peter and Matt meet up in an Akihabara store devoted entirely to capsule toys.

*You will leave the NHK website.