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Sunday, December 28, 1997 Published at 07:32 GMT

Special Report

The teen dreams of Japan
image: [ Many cyber characters draw on the manga comics ]
Many cyber characters draw on the manga comics

In Japan, 1997 was the year of the Tamagotchi, the portable pet you can keep in your pocket. But it was also the year of dozens of other youth products that are less well-known outside Japan.

Many seem to be inspired by the same bizarre mixture of high tech computer graphics and cuddly young life.

[ image: School girls are the Japanese trend-setters]
School girls are the Japanese trend-setters
Japanese high-school girls are the prime target for many marketers. BBC correspondent Juliette Hindell says high school girls set more trends than any other group in Japan. From personal pagers to the statutory baggy socks, everybody wants to know what Japanese school girls will latch on to next.

As the much-loved tamagotchi begins to lose its novelty value, school girls can progress onto a virtual boyfriend.

"Operation boyfriend makeover" is a computer game made by Atlus. As with virtual pets, owners must constantly nurture their virtual boyfriend. They have a year to turn him into the hunk of their dreams. They can also compile a photograph album of romantic moments in the virtual relationship.

Techno babes

[ image: Wide-eyes Shiori has fans queueing for concert]
Wide-eyes Shiori has fans queueing for concert
Alternatively, the school-girl image, which is very fashionable in Japan, is marketed to young men.

Shiori Fujisaki, 16, is the heroine of an interactive computer dating game. Players have to court her affection by going on virtual dates, buying virtual presents and if they're lucky blowing her virtual kisses.

The game is the brainchild of the Konami company, and has enjoyed enormous success with men between 18-40.

"It's a game of the heart. We could make it more erotic, and that might be good for business, but as far as I'm concerned it wouldn't be fun. Our dream is for the game to be made into a book or a film," said Yoshinori Nakumura, the game developer

Shiori has recently produced her first CD, and her first concert attracted huge queues.

[ image: Kyoko Date was the world's first cyber pop star]
Kyoko Date was the world's first cyber pop star
But the first cyber pop star was Kyoto Date, 17. Her CDs already top the charts. She is more realistic than Shiori, more Japanese, and puts the British computer heroine Lara Crofts to shame.

She was modelled on real women, and hundreds of singers auditioned to be her voice. She wears skimpy clothes, is a great dancer, and likes chocolate and video games.

At the offices of the computer game magazine, Famitsu, staff write features on all computer idols. They are flooded with letters from fans, which they reproduce in the magazine.

"Most of the letters ask things like 'How can I become close friends with a girl?' or 'How can I get a girl to fall in love with me?' But the girls they're talking about are the ones on the screen," said the magazine editor, Midi Harafuji.

The other side

When Ms Hindell asked real Japanese women for their reactions to this industry, she found they were unimpressed.

"It's really far from reality because these women are submissive and they're just there to make men feel good," said Kyoko Sato.

[ image: Pocket monsters triggered fits in dozens of viewers]
Pocket monsters triggered fits in dozens of viewers
Meanwhile, the new computer-game stars are cuddly yellow animals, called pocket monsters, who are also the subject of a weekly cartoon. But earlier this month they produced a disturbing effect: more than 700 viewers ended up in hospital after watching the programme, with epilepsy-type symptoms.

The trend in marketing images of youth may be attributed to Japan being a rapidly aging society, according to sociologist Mariko Fujiwara. Nearly a third of the Japanese population will be over 65 by 2020.

"In a society that is aging very very fast, being young has suddenly become a novelty. These girls realise that being young is marketable, and they can really be the focus of many people's attention" said Ms Fujiwari.


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