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Japanese Businesses Market to 'Bubble Juniors' - 2002-08-23

Decades of economic uncertainty have transformed many Japanese into thrifty consumers. But Japanese girls, aged nine to 14, are emerging as heavy spenders on clothing, make-up and accessories. Retailers are trying to capitalize on this potentially lucrative trend.

The upscale boutique "Girl is Girl" is located in Tokyo's chic Harajuku fashion district. At first glance, the shop appears similar to others lining the neighborhood's streets.

The music is loud, the interior is cheerful and the room is stocked with brightly colored cotton tops and skirts, cosmetics, shoes, socks and hand-bags. But this boutique caters to young schoolgirls instead of adult woman.

A 13-year-old customer, trying on make-up with a friend, explains the appeal. "I came here to see the items for sale and to buy the clothes," she says. "I like being fashionable and clothing is now my top interest."

The bulk of the buyers are nine to 14 years old, an age range which fashion marketers called "tweens," since their sense of style places them, somewhere in between children and adults. In Japan, these young fashion plates are also known as bubble juniors.

Mami Kujime manages the "Girl is Girl" boutique. "Many girls are researching how to be fashionable and they come to the store to get more information," she says. "Their mothers are also fashionable dressers and have spent large sums on clothes. This is partly why the so-called "tweens" market is now the center of attention."

The trend is new, but in Tokyo it is already pervasive. In addition to the "Girl is Girl" boutique, traditional department stores have opened large concessions selling similar merchandise. One of Japan's most famous retailers, Odakyu Shinjuku, now devotes more than 270 square meters of retail space to early teens.

Even toy stores, such as the Japanese outlets for Toys-R-Us of the U.S., have added 600 grown up style make-up products and accessories.

Yoko Kawashima, who does market research for Itochu Fashion System, explains the appeal. "It is natural that girls are interested in fashion. They hope to become adults quickly and that desire is reflected in these fashions," she says.

The clothing made for the bubble junior market combines grown up styles, such as sleeveless shirts and mini skirts, with childlike frills, including patterns featuring cartoon characters. The garment colors range from bubble pink to turquoise to tangerine. Among the shoes are platform sneakers and white cowboy boots. Accessories such as handbags and hairbands are plastic, shiny and come in a rainbow of patterns.

The items are not cheap. A T-shirt costs upwards of $20 while cut off blue jeans with hand embroidery run as high as $60 a pair.

Ms. Kawashima says that manufacturers try hard to please both the girls and their parents. "In Japan, some parents object to this industry because they think the clothing shows too much skin," she says. "So the producers are careful when they design items for young girls."

One mother of a fashion conscious 13-year-old says she is happy to finance her daughter's growing wardrobe. This generation of girls has a strong interest in fashion. I think they wear cute clothing. My daughter knows what she wants to wear so as a parent, I just pay for her purchases," she says.

With Japan's declining birthrate, parents can spend more per child, a fact that "tween" retailers are banking on. They price the merchandise just slightly below the similar items they produce for adult women, even though the kids are likely to outgrow the clothes after just a season or two.

But if Japan's birthrate continues to fall, as is generally predicted, the market for bubble juniors will shrink. So stores such as "Girl is Girl" are looking to export the craze to other parts of Asia, including Taiwan and mainland Chinese coastal cities such as Shanghai, which are quickly growing more affluent.