Japan's failed gadgets paved way for innovative success

A string of miserable flops came way before the country became known for its innovation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 3:38am

It gave us the Walkman, the pocket calculator and heated toilet seats, but Japan's path to innovative greatness is littered with failures such as the TV-shaped radio and the "walking" toaster.

These and other retro appliances are part of a treasure trove offering a glimpse of futures that never happened on Japan's journey to becoming a global byword for invention in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"Way back before Cool Japan was an Uncool Japan," said Kenichi Masuda, 49.

Masuda has made a life's work of gathering the also-rans in the race to consumer supremacy. He has amassed about 2,000 items over nearly three decades.

Witness Iwatsu Electric's "Both Phone": two telephones attached back to back with only one receiver, apparently to allow someone to make calls from either side. But only one at a time.

Marvel at Fuji Electric's double-decked electric fan, the "Silent Pair", which is definitely a pair but not exactly silent.

Browsing Masuda's collection sends one through a portal to a period in the past when the "three sacred treasures" - the television, refrigerator and washing machine - were status symbols to which all self-respecting housewives in Japan aspired.

But for those who could not afford a real television - Japan's first domestically produced set cost the equivalent of three years' salary for a mid-1950s high school graduate - the next best thing was readily available.

The "Sharp Cinema Super", a radio in the shape of a television, cost 10,900 yen - a little more than a month's salary for an elite public servant of the time.

"The delight of having the impression of watching TV would, however, fade quickly with this still screen, " said Masuda, adding: "I bet the man who bought this was scolded by his wife."

Panasonic's television-shaped gas stove GSF-1 is the most expensive model among a range of gas heaters the company sold over 30 years. "Is there any real meaning in this? No, but this shows how people admired television sets," Masuda said.

Other marvels include the "satellite" washing machine - a round metal pod with a handle that stirs dirty laundry in water and detergent. The product was launched in 1957, amid public excitement over the Soviet Union's Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite.

Sharp's "Quicky" - a pair of electric scissors - and Toshiba's prosaically named "CK-31A" electric can opener were both failures too.

Hitachi's "Piano" is a desktop electric fan that is, for no discernable reason, shaped like a miniature piano and is supposed to emit a gently scented breeze.

Not to be confused with typical hotel "conveyor belt" toasters, Toshiba's "walking toaster" has a slit entrance for the slice of bread, which is then "walked" vertically down inside the toaster on metal rails. When the toast eventually emerges at the other end, it feels like a major achievement.

"This didn't sell. There's no way Japan's small kitchens had room for a product whose size and price were twice those of common models," Masuda said.

His personal favourite is Toshiba's "Snack-3", a device that can warm milk while toasting a slice of bread and frying an egg. "People may have wanted to have Western-style breakfast at the time ... though you would become tired of that fairly quickly," he said.

Japanese consumer electronics evolved from this trial-and-error period to sweep the world in the late 20th century - with Sony's Walkman standing as perhaps the epitome of Nippon know-how.

But then it all went wrong.

Household names that appeared almost indestructible in the 1980s - Panasonic, Sharp and Sony - are now shadows of their former selves, struggling to keep up with their South Korean and Taiwanese rivals.