My Japanology / Starting from boyhood play in Yokohama

Hiroto Sekiguchi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Harold Meij speaks to The Japan News at Tomy Co.’s head office in Tokyo on May 30.

The Japan NewsThese days, kids grow up with technology gadgets such as smartphones, and are exposed to virtual reality on the screen. Adults might think that our children are no longer playing with toy cars. However, Harold Meij, the first foreign president of toy maker Tomy Co., says traditional physical toys can attract children’s interest by creating connections with digital technologies. The Dutch executive, who was himself a big fan of Tomy’s die-cast cars as a boy, spoke about his vision.

Q: You lived in Japan during your childhood. Did you play with Tomy’s toys at that time?

Meij: Yes. I came to Japan for the first time when I was 8 years old. My father had a job at a Japanese company. Obviously I didn’t speak Japanese. But the problem was I didn’t speak English either. At that time I just spoke Dutch, because I was 8 years old. So you only speak one language.

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  • Hiroto Sekiguchi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Harold Meij speaks to The Japan News.

Because I went to international school, everything at school was English. I didn’t know the words “yes,” “no,” nothing. But once I was outside of school, everything was in Japanese, which I didn’t know a single word of either.

So I was completely lost. I didn’t have friends. I could watch TV but I had no idea what they were talking about. And my father worked for a Japanese company: Back then, he worked Saturdays. So I never got to see my parents either. They were very busy.

All I had was toys, basically, to just play with myself. And back then, it was very common to go play in parks. So there was a little park near where I was living in Yokohama, and I was just sitting there and playing with what now are Tomica (Tomy’s die-cast cars).

And I was playing with them and other kids came over. They were talking to me in Japanese, which I didn’t understand. But they were saying something about the cars, obviously, the Tomica. I didn’t know what. I don’t know if it was good or bad. But they were saying something. And that’s how communication started.

And it’s like, oh, well I have a Tomica, too, kind of thing. Oh, I know that one, because I’ve seen that around. So it’s all about hand communication really.

But that’s how it started. And that’s how single words came out like “kuruma” (car), “iro” (color), “aka” (red). So I slowly started to learn the language and make friends. The thing that allowed me to do that was the Tomica.

Q: Tomica played an important role for you when you were a child in Japan. Could you tell me your view on the future of toys and your relationship with customers?

A: I think the most important thing is that the role of toys is changing. [People used to think] a toy is not something that you really need in your life. It’s a luxury. I think people are starting to understand that toys are much more than a luxury item, it’s something you need to have in your life. For example, it has much more of a role of education. It’s much more of a role of developing a child’s imagination.

Also, having a physical toy in your hand makes a little child want to have hand-eye coordination, especially if there’s even sounds, you’re using all your senses as a little kid. And I think that people understand that you don’t get that from just digital toys. You don’t get that from an iPad, you don’t get that from a PC game.

You have to have the physical, and you have to have some of the digital technologies in there. So I think first of all the role is changing. And also the forms of toys are changing.

What we’re trying to do more is to really merge the analog toys with digital technology. But we always believe that we will never become 100 percent digital because I think there’s a role for that analog portion of toys.

500 quality checks

Q: You’ve found that products with low profit margins are not selling well these days overseas. How are you dealing with that?

A: Well, you have problems in any companies. You always have to say, “What’s the core of the problem?”

It’s very simple that in toys you can either make your own toys, with your own characters, your own brands, or use someone else’s. You need both, you cannot be 100 percent only your own characters in this day and age, because children will get information at all places, and they’re not going to be just your brands, your characters, your toys.

So you do have to sell and develop other people’s characters as well. The question is what balance is that? What percent should you do your own brands, your own products, how much should you use other people’s products, other people’s brands?

Japanese ‘quirkiness’ key to overseas sales

And I think that we are No. 1 in Japan but we’re not No. 1 overseas. We have a very high brand awareness in Japan, but we don’t have that overseas. So in the short term, to gain that short-term awareness, brand or company awareness, you have to rely on other people’s brands and other people’s characters until you get established your own company’s brand awareness.

I think we’re in that stage where we’re shifting into being able to sell more of our own brands and products overseas than we were in the past. Why are we able to do that now when we weren’t able to do that in the past?

The first one is that we have a lot of innovation, Japanese innovation that consumers overseas are starting to understand. They’re saying, “Wow, I didn’t know they have all these innovations in Japan,” “I didn’t know they had this type of characters, these types of products or games or toys.”

The second thing is that they’re starting to understand the quality of Japanese toys. Japanese toys are more expensive than the same toy that is sold overseas. But there’s a reason for that. We think that reason is the quality. For example, a very simple toy like that Tomica that you see there, it’s basically a piece of metal that looks like a car with little wheels on it.

Yet our Tomicas go through over 500 quality checks before they hit the market. Now, that costs money and that costs time. But we think as a Japanese company, with Japan it’s all about quality, right? So we have to have a responsibility as a Japanese company to have much higher quality standards than many companies, or toy companies, out there. So that’s the second one.

I think the third point of difference is what we call the craft issue. It’s not the quality. It’s not the innovation. It’s the craft issue. It’s how well the products are made, not just the quality but how well they are reflective of that character. So for example, when you see a Disney movie you see it in two dimensions. We have to make that, what you see in two dimensions, into three dimensions, and something physical that you can hold in your hand. That’s very difficult.

How big do you make it? What colors are you using? What are all the sizes of the parts you cannot see on a movie or a video? I think that’s where Japanese people or Japanese culture is very strong, is able to translate two-dimensional things into three-dimensional things. So I always am surprised how close we got to the original car such as Toyotas and Nissans that are ridden out there in a simple Tomica.

Two types of markets

Q: Which countries or regions do you see as promising markets for Japanese toys?

A: Well, we have to look at the world, which is a wide place, it has over 200 countries. And if we look at it from a toy point of view you have to split it into two. One is what we call the advanced countries. These are where the buying power is very high, but so is technology and so is the competition. So these are places like the United States, Europe, even Japan. In those types of places we think we can bring out more of our technology and our innovation to those markets.

But the other part is the developing countries. These are like Southeast Asia, Latin America, parts of Africa, etc. where the buying power is still quite low but increasing dramatically. And because we have over a 90-year history, we’ve been through that in Japan as well. Japan went through that phase too where the buying power was still low but highly increasing, and we had toys that we sold in that time.

Obviously we have to make it more modern, but we can use that know-how from that period and bring it into basically the 21st-century version of those toys. So I’m looking at it in two ways.

[One is with] so high technology, high price and high quality. The other one is for more developing countries, more basic but Japanese innovative-type products for places like Southeast Asia. We have some very basic toys that we can still sell.

One good example is the Gacha. The capsule, what’s inside those capsules, is only a dollar, two dollars, three dollars, it depends on what you buy, but very simple toys. But they’re very uniquely Japanese. I love the word “quirkiness.” This is very typical. I’m trying to tell all my people you have to know one English word, it’s this word, quirkiness, Japanese quirkiness.

A lot of the Gacha products are hennamono [weird stuff], as we say in Japanese. Or weird, but not weird in a grotesque way, weird in a funny way, like “I want to get that” way, “I wanna buy that.” And I think that Japanese quirkiness can really translate into a lot of markets out there, because there’s nobody else who does that.

One of the products is a Gacha product. It’s only two dollars. That’s called in Japanese, Jiyu Sugiru Megami [which literally means Goddess of Too Much Liberty and which was named after the Statue of Liberty or Jiyu No Megami in Japanese].’

Everybody knows the Statue of Liberty. [These Gacha products are] drinking beer, or relaxing, or being a little bit sexy, or apologizing. Who comes up with that idea? Only a Japanese person could do that. That’s not only funny. It’s easy to understand [for] anybody in the world. People would understand this and they can buy it, because it’s only two dollars, three dollars. I mean, you can buy it. That’s where I think Japanese quirkiness comes in.

Q: You have been living in Japan for 30 years. What keeps you in Japan?

A: There’s the private and the professional thing. The professional reason is because I am unique. How many foreigners do you know that speak the language, write the language, read the language, know the culture, but can still be as foreign as they need to be? So it’s very unique. So I thought I could make a difference here in Japan or the Japanese market. That’s the professional side.

But the private side is I love Japan. Why do I love Japan? Well, first of all, it’s safe. Second thing, it has such a deep history. And I’m totally into history, I love history. That’s my personal hobby, is history. It’s got violent history, but also a very peaceful history.

It’s pretty amazing that you have all that stuff in a small little island really. And you can go visit that history. There are some temples out there that have been standing up for 1,000 years. We have some of that in Europe as well: old castles and things like this. So I think that I like the safety, like the cultural, the history. Those three things keep me here.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Shinichi Ikeda.

Meij was born on Dec. 4, 1963. A native of the Netherlands, he graduated from Bucknell University and New York University Graduate School in the United States. He joined Heineken Japan as an assistant general manager in 1987. He also worked for Unilever Japan K.K., Sunstar Inc., and Coca-Cola Japan Co. He joined Tomy in March 2014, and took up his present post in June 2015.

(From June 27, 2016, issue)

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