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In Japan -- Elderly, Restless and Ready to Buy

Companies target aging consumers who want products that afford them active lifestyles.

August 24, 2003|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — In May, Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled the "universal design" version of its Raum passenger van, with an easy-to-read dashboard, seats that swivel sideways and, in some models, hand controls for the accelerator and brake.

The user-friendly Raum, available only in Japan, zoomed out of showrooms. In the first month, Toyota sold 11,000 of them, nearly three times what it had predicted.

"The concept of universal design was a hit," said Natsuki Den, a Toyota spokeswoman. "It surpassed our expectations."

Universal design goods and gadgets are made to be accessible to anyone -- the frail, the physically disabled, parents with small children, the overweight -- but have a ready-made audience in the growing senior citizen population.

And whether they are selling cars, household appliances or bathroom fixtures, Japanese companies are taking the lead in developing products and services aimed at older consumers, often by embracing universal design, a concept developed in the United States a decade ago.

Corporate Japan has little choice: A graying population and a declining birthrate have made Japan the most rapidly aging country in the developed world.

And companies in the United States and other countries further behind on the aging curve -- just 12.4% of the U.S. population is older than 65 -- are watching Japan to see how well it wrings sales out of seniors.

"Technically, the Japanese look to us quite a lot for lead- ership," said Kate Vanderheiden, a manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Trace Center, a federally funded rehabilitation engineering research center. "But as a society, they were far more interested, much faster, than the U.S. in the concept of universal design.... It was the demographics that was driving them."

Today, 24 million Japanese, representing 19% of the population, are older than 65. That's expected to rise to 28.7% by 2025 and to 35.7% by 2050.

"Before, when the population of elderly people was small, companies had to make a special effort to produce for the elderly," said Yutaka Kobayashi, a senior researcher at Yano Research Institute in Tokyo. "Now, they cannot avoid thinking about this elderly market."

Although young women traditionally have driven Japanese consumer trends, the over-65 set controls more than half of the wealth in Japan. Seniors who put $49 billion toward goods and services in 2001 could be spending $66 billion by 2011, according to UFJ Institute, a Tokyo research group.

One thing Japanese companies have learned: Senior citizens want products that allow them to continue active lifestyles. As in the United States, improvements in diet and medical care mean seniors are living more independent, busy lives. They don't want to be labeled old or treated with kid gloves.

So, to cater to them, Japanese companies are writing new chapters in universal design. At Tripod Design in Tokyo, for instance, it's the Handy Wormy.

President Satoshi Nakagawa came up with the idea for the Handy Wormy, one of Tripod's most popular products, when he was consulting for Ito-Yokado Co., a large Japanese retail conglomerate.

Nakagawa, who began his career teaching art to disabled children, noticed that many women folded a handkerchief or towel and used it to cushion their hands when they picked up heavy shopping bags. His solution: a colorful plastic worm-like handle that hooks onto a bag and distributes the weight more evenly. Tripod has sold 600,000 Handy Wormys, which retail for about $3 apiece.

Tripod's other products include an easy-to-grip pen called the Handy Birdy, slip-on walking shoes and a line of lightweight luggage.

"As we age, we will lose our depth perception and our color range," said Nakagawa, whose products will be exhibited in September in New York in an event sponsored by the Japan Society. "Life becomes confusing. We need to make it as simple as possible."

A wide range of Japanese companies, from food processors to stationery companies, are following universal design principles.

Kokuyo, Japan's leading stationery firm, has a line of 400 universal design products, including staplers and scissors with lightweight handles for people whose grips aren't as strong as they used to be.

The country's leading mobile phone company, NTT DoCoMo, has developed a loyal following among senior citizens with its Raku-raku-hom (Easy Phone) mobile phone featuring an easy-to-read design with few buttons.

Food companies are jumping into the fray too, producing low-calorie, lightly seasoned products aimed at seniors' palates and food supplements and vitamin products touted for their anti-aging properties.

Like many other Japanese firms, Citizen Watch Co. is taking its show to the United States, where it soon will begin selling a Tripod-designed watch with a large display face and a pop-off band for easy removal.

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