It’s that time of the year, when we look back on the past 12 months in Japan and the major trends that defined them. Earlier this month, Rakuten’s very own Trend Hunter Jun Shimizu — whose role includes sifting through mountains of data generated by Rakuten Ichiba to help identify nascent trends — discussed his findings at Crimson House in Tokyo.
So, without further ado, here are the ten most significant trends of 2018, divided like professional sumo into East and West categories.
Best of the East
1. Nostalgia rush: For old time’s sake
Japan will soon kick off a brand-new era following the abdication of Emperor Akihito in April 2019, which will conclude the so-called “Heisei period.” As the months tick down, a wave of nostalgia has gripped the nation: Social media is flooded with phrases like ‘the last Heisei summer festival,’ ‘the last Halloween of Heisei,’ ‘Heisei’s last Christmas…’
As Japan reflects on three decades of Heisei era popular culture, the 90s are shining brightly in the spotlight. In the fashion world, G-Shock watches are back with a vengeance, along with thick-soled ‘dad sneakers’ and tall high heel boots reminiscent of recently retired 90s icon Namie Amuro.
2. A summer for the record books
The summer of 2018 was marked by a record-breaking heatwave in Japan, as several weeks of high humidity and temperatures above 40°C (104°F) kept ambulances busy around the country caring for heat-struck citizens.
“If you took a walk around Shibuya this summer you would have seen everyone carrying these little electric fans,” Shimizu told media. Neck coolers and high-sodium snacks to stave off heatstroke were also in high demand, while sudden downpours of summer rain sparked a new demand for umbrella-parasol hybrids.
“There is actually a huge demand for parasols for men this year,” Shimizu remarked. It seems male shoppers are finally recognizing the undeniable cooling effect that a spot of shade can bring.
3. Snacks to stimulate the senses
Japanese consumers are apparently becoming more adventurous with their eating habits, taking on some of the more alternative tastes the world has to offer.
2018 saw increases in demand for fiery-hot dishes, cheese, high-alcohol mixed drinks and ― something long disliked for its association with toothpaste ― mint chocolate, which saw a 600% increase in sales over the year.
“Social media is driving this trend,” Shimizu explained. “All of these items are a bit alternative in Japan… the kind of thing you feel the need to post on your timeline!”
4. Time freedom for working women
As representation in the workforce increases, Japan’s working women are beginning to look for ways to get the most out of their busy schedules.
There was a nearly five-fold jump in demand for automatic slow-cookers ― the type that can be set up in the morning for a freshly made meal when you come home ― as well as an increase in women purchasing meal kits and prepared foods. “This isn’t just about saving time,” Shimizu stressed. “I think the focus here is on creating time.”
5. The rise of esports
The esports boom has finally arrived. Despite Japan’s reputation as a major hub of gaming culture, the country’s regulatory environment had meant that running large-scale competitive esports events was all but impossible ― until recently.
2018 has seen Japan’s esports industry begin to blossom: Demand for items such as gaming mice, keyboards and desk chairs has almost doubled, and there was even a spike in demand for esports uniforms. “Esports is a completely new market in Japan, and expectations are high.”
Best of the West
1. Sports fever
2018 was a successful year for Japan’s athletes, kicking off with 13 medals at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics ― their most to date. The event stoked Japan’s figure skating fanaticism even further, with Akita dog-related goods enjoying a three-fold increase after Russian figure skater Alina Zagitova was gifted one of the iconic pooches.
“Badminton, table tennis, the World Cup ― there have been so many sporting events to watch this year… Japanese people are figuring out how to really enjoy watching sports from home,” Shimizu noted, remarking on the significant uptick in sales of popcorn and other goods designed to enhance the experience of watching TV.
With the 2019 Japan Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, this trend doesn’t look to be going away any time soon.
2. Cashless culture catching on
Wallets are going out of fashion ― or getting smaller, at least. Japan’s love affair with paper is at long last coming to an end, thanks to the rise of credit cards and mobile payment systems like Rakuten Pay.
Credit card cases have undergone a four-fold increase in sales on Rakuten Ichiba, with miniature wallets and phone case wallet hybrids also seeing a significant boost in interest. “It’s at the point where this is becoming an actual fashion trend.”
3. Transparent everything
Clear is here.
In addition to a 34% jump in sales of see-through PVC handbags, beverage companies are also eagerly responding to consumer demand for ‘clear’ versions of their products ― clear cola, coffee, tea and beer ― sales of which almost doubled. “There are all sorts of clear products on the market right now, a demand that’s being reflected on Rakuten Ichiba.”
4. Husbands shopping for the house
With more and more women in the Japanese workforce, stay-at-home husbands are becoming an accepted reality.
When buying household implements, Shimizu remarked that men tended to place importance not just on functionality, but also on what they consider clever design. Sales of household “lifehack” goods such as “laundry balls” increased by a factor of almost five, while grill pans marketed for “man cooking” also saw a jump of over 50%.
5. Home is where the Heart is
Japanese people living on their own are realizing that home is more than just a place to sleep between the commute to work. Shimizu noticed an uptick in goods designed to spice up home life, such as aquariums, terrariums, indoor plants, sofas and card games.
Those living alone also appear to be buying more books for self-study: “People are using their free time for self-improvement, studying to get various qualifications,” Shimizu noted. Despite the increased focus on life at home, Japan’s culture of hard work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.