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The wacky, wired world of Thanko

Hiroyasu Yamamitsu of Thanko
Hiroyasu Yamamitsu of Thanko

TOKYO (TR) – To the chagrin of the legions of geeks who call it home, Akihabara, the Tokyo district regarded as the prime shopping spot for the latest in electronics and cartoon merchandise, is being reshaped by a renaissance that has nothing to do with quirky gadgets or erotic manga.

Mainstream emporiums and sparkling office developments are now shadowing the area’s trusty standbys: the eateries where waitresses dress as maids in frilly Victorian wear, the dusty stalls selling mounds of outdated computer and audio gear and the obscure shops peddling character costumes and accessories.

But for Hiroyasu Yamamitsu, a self-described otaku and president of quirky electronics company Thanko, this is an exciting time; not a reason for pessimism. “Now, there are so many new things,” says the president from outside one of his company’s two stores in Akihabara. “The great aspect of Akihabara is that it accepts all businesses. Everyone is welcome.”

He slips inside and moves to the rear of the store, whose entry is just across from the new 22-floor Akihabara UDX building, and picks up his company’s USB Necktie Cooler (2,980 yen) a tongue-in-cheek item aimed at the “Cool Biz” campaign, a government push for office workers to dress lightly in summer. Outfitted with a USB connection (a near Thanko standard) and cable, the plastic neckwear is outfitted with a rotating fan inside its knot.

A USB pen by Thanko

“Thanko is an unusual company,” admits Yamamitsu, a bespectacled 42-year-old who is continually moving his hands to mimic the motions required to operate the product he is describing. “We are not a technology company. Our feeling is that if a product is low on technology, it can still be useful, and it can still have value.”

Wacky products coming from Japan are nothing new. Maywa Denki blends art and music into toys and Dr. Nakamats has continually cranked out one bizarre creation after another. Thanko, however, markets electronics on a wide scale for both their uniqueness and practicality – two of the company’s hallmarks that Yamamitsu says will never change no matter what path Akihabara may forge in the future.

Thanko, whose name comes from a play on the pronunciation of the kanji characters “yama” and “mitsu,” markets products to the otaku consumer for both their uniqueness and practicality.

“If it is only unique we will reject it,” says Yamamitsu of a product’s initial design stage. “If it is only practical we will also reject it. This is because if it is only one or the other, the consumer will not buy it.”

The Gorone Desk Cool (8,980 yen), whose adjustable arm and built-in swirling fan system allows a laptop to be used at a comfortable temperature and in various reclined positions, is one of Thanko’s bigger sellers, with 45,000 units sold. Other common purchases are the USB-wired gloves and slippers, both of which come with controls to independently regulate the temperature in each limb, and the USB AM/FM Radio (6,980 yen). “In the past, we had a receiver for the FM band only,” Yamamitsu says of an earlier version of his receiver that supports PC software for recording purposes. “It was popular but most customers wanted AM as well. So we developed this new model.”

Yamamitsu checks the condition of his skin

Other favorites in the company’s latest 31-page catalog, which contains items from other companies as well, include recording binoculars, which allow the user to capture his city adventures (voyeuristic or otherwise) at a 2.1 mega-pixel resolution, a USB smokeless ashtray, whose 1-cm thick filter and suction device are perfect for coffee breaks, and a speaker mounted in the side of a flower pot. “My inspiration,” Yamamitsu says, “comes from daily life, which could result in very small problems or needs.”

Some products are inspired by the seasons. A Thanko employee suffering from kafunsho (hay fever) in spring gave rise to the USB Refresher Mask (2,480 yen), which covers the wearer’s mouth and includes a fan beneath its surface. “Typical masks are damp and warm,” Yamamitsu says of the device which is possible to use away from a PC with a battery pack. “But the circulating air of ours reduces those issues.”

Modifications to existing products can as well contribute. A variation of the MP4 Watch Metal (19,800 yen), which plays video on its screen, sported a black silicone band and plastic frame. “But it looked cheap,” the president explains of the former model, “and adults did not like it. So we created this new version with a shiny metal frame and band.”

The USB Eye Warmer (1,980 yen) has been improved in two areas. The gray mask now boasts a more sensitive dial for temperature control, and the heating element has been upgraded. “It used to be made of carbon fiber,” Yamamitsu says of the element. “But the new version uses thin aluminum, which gets much warmer.” On a related note, the USB Warm Slippers (2,980 yen), available in brown and gray, will soon have a rechargeable battery option.

The Gas Shock Monitor Arm (9,800 yen), which is fabricated of light-weight aluminum, is the first wall-mounting device to support a 24″ LCD (capacity up to 15 kilograms) and includes a gas-pressurized spring in its arm.

For Christmas, Thanko is developing a computer mouse that includes a snowflake storm inside its case. Unlike last year’s version, for which the user had to actually shake the device to instigate the tumbling, this year the flakes will drop automatically.

Thanko USB necktie
A USB necktie by Thanko

To assess trends in the market, a weekly meeting provides an open forum for employees to pitch potential product ideas. Subsequent drawings and mock-up models are then sent between Japan and China, the location of Thanko’s factory.

Though it may not seem possible, some ideas are rejected for being overly extreme. A USB-powered foot-cooler was turned down because the cooling element would have been too bulky and awkward around the ankle. “Companies simply cannot develop all of their dreams,” Yamamitsu says.

And try they might, not every Thanko product sparkles (financially and visually) like its heavy, brick-shaped, and eight-socket USB Gold Hub (5,980 yen), which Yamamitsu says was designed with such ballast so that it wouldn’t budge when the sockets were accessed. The iBlueTube (42,800 yen), which is an iPod dock and speaker, is the company’s biggest failure. With side-mounted tubes of shimmering LED lights, which Yamamitsu admits are merely for decorative purposes, the unit had its price slashed in half earlier this year before being deleted.

In spite of Yamamitsu’s intentions of balancing his products’ idiosyncratic elements with their usefulness, it is easy to be critical of many of the items in the Thanko catalog for being overly over-the-top: for example, a woman can be seen using the Dino-Lite Digital Microscope (9,800 yen) to display a zoom shot of her right cheek’s skin on a monitor. But the revenue figures speak for themselves. Between 2004 and 2006, Thanko’s annual sales have more than doubled to 440 million yen.

With a staff of 13 in Tokyo, Thanko is a small player, but the overall otaku market is huge. All those gizmos and toys add up to an annual value of 400 billion yen, reported a 2005 study by the Nomura Research Institute.

Being the center of an industry possessing such a substantive impact was likely not on the minds of the original characters that inhabited Akihabara, which following World War II came into prominence for its outlets that sold vacuum tubes and other circuitry.

Yamamitsu’s beginnings were similarly humble. He previously worked for a company that imported gadgets from overseas. Thanko started in 2003 as an online venture called Rare Mono Shop. The company has since grown to include four stores, three in Tokyo and one in Osaka.

Further growth is expected with overseas sales, which began soon after the launch of an English version of Rare Mono Shop late last year. But with shipping costs from Japan being extremely high, Yamamitsu is looking for distributors in the U.S. and Europe to complement his existing partners in Singapore and Korea.

Yamamitsu gets a head massage

The versatile USB port has been the company’s bread and butter, but ventures into such wireless systems as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are probable once demand for products using these technologies in Japan increases.

Like product pitchman Ron Popeil and his eccentric company Ronco (“Mr. Microphone” and “Pocket Fisherman”), Yamamitsu has visions of moving to everyday items. (When asked, the Thanko president had no idea that Popeil marketed a smokeless ashtray decades ago.) “Right now we are focusing on a small market,” he says. “We would also like to expand beyond the PC market to more mainstream items.”

This might mean upping the company’s current monthly output from two or three new products to six. “If we stop developing new products,” he supposes, “we will lose customers.”

Certainly thoughts of going mainstream is heresy to any tried-and-true otaku consumer, but they would not be alone in raising a caution flag.

“The otaku market is highly segmented,” says Ken Kitabayashi, a contents and communications consultant at the Nomura Research Institute. “In general, companies can not expand their business simply by increasing the number of articles in the otaku market.”

Yamamitsu agrees, explaining that Thanko will continue challenging itself in all areas. “We need to make our products more interesting and useful for not only the otaku market,” he says, “but also for the common market.”