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Gizmo shopping in Japan

CNET's Michael Kanellos travels to Tokyo to find out what might be winding up on U.S. shelves in the not-too-distant future.

TOKYO--Finally, a product spoke to me. And it said:

"I'm not as picky as your father."

"Just between you and me, she's strange."

"I am in trouble because of credit cards."

"Don't blame yourself. He'll take the blame!"

The product in question is the NHC 8100 from Magic Talkers, an electronic handheld for teaching English to Japanese speakers, which is on sale at Yodobashi Camera, one of the many electronics megastores in Tokyo. A message on an LCD spells out an automatically generated phrase in both kanji and English characters, while a voice simulator demonstrates how it is supposed to sound.

Despite increasing international competition, Japanese companies still seem to have an edge when it comes to product design. A U.S. version of the product for English speakers who want to learn Japanese would have been stacked with practical phrases, such as "Where is the bus stop?" or "Let's get to work!"

But, as Sony President Kunitake Ando points out, Japanese engineers seek to establish an emotional connection with consumers. Hence, for about $90 you can buy a machine that teaches you how to say, "I am in love with Michelle."

Various explanations have been offered for the Japanese lead in product design. The meticulous engineering, some believe, is the cultural heritage of centuries of confined, urban housing. Others credit Buddhism.

Some stores play their own theme song in continuous loops. Yodobashi, for example, has adopted "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as its jingle.

Personally, I chalk it up to the national pastime of shopping. Here, a metropolitan train station isn't really complete without a pair of high-rise department stores and an underground mall. Things may cost quite a bit, but consumers can spot--and will pay for--novelty and aesthetics on the shelves. Hence, grocery stores can sell a melon for $20 or more, and upscale health spas have lockers that open with RFID tags, not to mention saunas with plasma TVs.

Shopping fever also makes it a lot of fun to troll for PCs and gadgets in places like Bic Camera or the Akihabara, the city's famed district for gizmos and comic books. Electronic stores are often eight or nine stories high and organized thematically: first floor--PCs; second floor--TVs; seventh--the Sharp Heals and other designer broilers; and sidewalk--cell phones and photo developing.

Some of the stores play their own theme song in continuous loops. Yodobashi, for example, has adopted "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as its jingle ("Every kid should have the right to get the latest DVD..."). A traditional marching version of the song is played on the PC-TV floors, while a sort-of Ella Fitzgerald-esque jazz version plays in the vacuum cleaner section.

So what are they buying in Japan? Mini digital cameras are far bigger here than in the United States. The stores feature several models like the Kyocera Finecam and the Minolta Dimage X50--full-fledged 5-megapixel cameras that weigh in at about 4 ounces and are about the same size as an iPod.

Canon's IXY and similar cameras from Casio and Panasonic each have a smaller face--about the size of a business card--but are about an inch thick. Like the other cameras, they have 5 megapixels of functionality, cost about $400 and come in designer colors such as pink and silver.

Then there are the small video cameras like the Sanyo Xacti CX1, a handheld video camera with a built-in 3-megapixel still camera that looks like a Norelco shaver. It stores video on a secure digital card. Again, like the mini digital cameras, these small video cameras can be found outside Japan, but not the same variety.

Despite increasing international competition, Japanese companies still seem to have an edge when it comes to product design.

In television sets, the cathode-ray tube has all but vanished in the face of the liquid-crystal-display and plasma onslaught. Few projection TVs--quite popular in the United States--are sold. The reason: The mammoth sets would swallow up too much space in a Tokyo apartment, a Sony representative said.

When it comes to PCs, the all-in-one models are a lot more popular. Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu all tout PCs that can serve as TVs or computers. In notebooks, Panasonic has become a rising brand. In addition, Sony is promoting a triad of portable hard-drive products--the Type U handheld computer, the HMP-A1 handheld video player and the Vaio Pocket Music player--but the customer traffic around these displays seems kind of light.

U.S. brands are fairly nonexistent. Yodobashi has one row of IBM ThinkPads. The store also has a special room for Apple Computer products, but it's located on the second floor behind a room full of cordless phones, paper shredders and desk chairs. There, four salespeople helped three customers: an old man buying a copy of OS X and two sullen hipsters tinkering with an iPod.

By contrast, software from U.S. companies thrives here. Symantec, Adobe Systems and Microsoft are well represented. And, in a sign of the times, one store rested a customer demonstration unit for Linspire, a developer of desktop Linux, on the Microsoft Open License Program counter.

Real estate, after all, is at a premium.