TOKYO >> Yoshiaki Yamanishi set out to create the most boring toy imaginable.
In the booming universe of Japanese capsule vending machines, the competition is strong. Anyone with some pocket change could have been rewarded in recent months with a miniature toy gas meter that doubles as a step counter, a bar code scanner that emits a realistic beep or a doll-size plastic gasoline can with a functioning nozzle.
But when Yamanishi landed upon the idea of making a series of ultrarealistic split-system air conditioners late last year, he was confident he had a hit. Aficionados across Japan rushed to snatch up the tiny machines, complete with air ducts and spinning fans, just like the colorless rectangular units mounted outside buildings the world over.
To the list of unlikely winners of the pandemic, add Japan’s hundreds of thousands of capsule vending machines. Called gachapon, they dispense toys at random with the turn of a dial. Hundreds of new products are introduced each month, and videos of gachapon shopping sprees rack up millions of views.
The toys, also called gacha- pon, have traditionally been aimed at children. But their exploding popularity has been accompanied, or perhaps driven, by a surge in what the industry calls “original” goods geared toward adults — replicas of everyday objects, the more mundane the better.
Isolated in their plastic spheres, the tiny reproductions feel like a metaphor for COVID-era life. On social media, users — as gachapon designers call customers — arrange their purchases in wistful tableaus of life outside the bubble, Zen rock gardens for the 21st century. Some have faithfully re-created drab offices, others business hotel rooms.
Young women make up more than 70% of the market and have been especially active in promoting the toys on social media, said Katsuhiko Onoo, head of the Japan Gachagacha Association. (Gachagacha is an alternative term for the toys.)
That enthusiasm has helped double the market for the toys over the last decade, with annual sales reaching nearly $360 million at more than 600,000 gachapon machines by 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. Industry watchers say that interest has continued to surge during the pandemic.
The products are not particularly profitable for most makers, but they offer designers a creative outlet and find a ready customer base in a country that has always had a taste for whimsy, said Hiroaki Omatsu, who writes a weekly column about the toys for a website run by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Gachapon machines trace their roots to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, when the contraptions dispensed candy, peanuts and trinkets. Japan supplied many of the cheap toys that filled them, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the devices hit the country’s shores. In the late 1970s, the machines had their breakout moment when Bandai — now one of the world’s largest toy companies — sparked a national craze with a series of collectible rubber erasers.
To keep customers coming back for more, even the smallest companies put out as many as a dozen new toys each month.
The Tokyo toy company Kenelephant has made a niche for itself with detailed reproductions of objects that are more familiar than desirable.
Displayed on walls of white gallery shelving around the company’s office, the tiny replicas of Yoshinoya beef bowls and Ziploc plastic containers are positioned as a kind of pop art. The company receives emails every day from companies eager to have their products miniaturized.
The seeds for the current gachapon boom were planted in 2012 when the toymaker Kitan Club set off a frenzy with Fuchi- ko, a woman dressed in the uniform of a female Japanese office worker — known as an O.L., or office lady — who could be perched on the edge of a glass.
Mondo Furuya, Kitan Club’s chief executive, said the toy’s success had led more than two dozen small makers to enter a market dominated by two large producers, Bandai and Takara Tomy.
Popular toys used to sell over 1 million units. Now, with competition so intense, anything over 100,000 is a bona fide hit.
Keita Nishimura, the chief executive of another gachapon maker, Toys Spirits, describes the process of designing the toys as half art, half engineering challenge. It’s a three-dimensional haiku defined by price (cheap enough to be sold profitably for a few coins) and size (the capsules are generally about 2 inches wide).
At Toys Spirits, the focus is on usable items. Recent hits have included a water cooler that dispenses ant-size droplets and a shaved ice machine that makes real shaved ice — syrup not included. In search of maximum authenticity, Nishimura had both toys certified kitchen-safe by Japan’s food safety regulator.
Making big things is easy, but making small things is tough, he said. Three years ago, he left his job making high-end toys at a leading company to pursue the challenge.
Although Nishimura dresses like a Japanese salaryman, when he describes his work he sounds like Willy Wonka — each empty capsule is a world of pure imagination.
“I put a lot of effort into making each one,” he said. “I just keep trying to squeeze something wonderful in there, something that makes you dream.”