It's summer and kids are on vacation. But in Japan high-school girls don't hang out in the town centre, or get a suntan at the beach. They become advisory board members to big telcos such as NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone).
When it comes to finding out what is hot on the streets, the most reliable resource is teenage girls, who are more interested in fashion and trends than Japanese boys, and less afraid of stating their own opinions.
Boom Planning, a market research company, has recognised this and specialises in setting up meetings between companies and high-school girls. It has around 8,000 panel members who are willing to give marketing advice to product manufacturers.
"Do any of you often use online terminals of convenience stores?" Koji Ohtsuka asked four teenage girls at just such a meeting with Boom Planning. He is in charge of NTT's telegram business marketing division.
"Once when purchasing a concert ticket," answered one.
Others nodded. Then one of them added: "Not very often. It's complicated to use those terminals."
The company desperately wants to attract teenagers to send old-fashioned paper telegrams for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries, and to discover better ways for consumers to order telegrams in the internet age, instead of dictating them by phone.
After several meetings and evaluations by the girls, the company decided to push its subsidiary NTT DoCoMo to start a telegram service for i-Mode, its wireless mobile internet service.
"We can't convince them [NTT DoCoMo] but young girls can. If these girls say they want to send a telegram via i-Mode, NTT DoCoMo has to do it," Ohtsuka said. The service is expected to start as early as December this year, he said.
One of the reasons why companies value high-school girls' opinions so much is because of their strong network, especially using email, to spread the word to a mass audience, according to Makiko Komoda, chief planner at Boom Planning.
Takako Kawaguchi, one of the girls attending the meeting with NTT, said she can't help alerting all her friends to a product she is involved with at Boom Planning when she sees it at a store.
That word-of-mouth publicity is also helping the companies which come to Boom Planning to sell new products, Komoda said, and trends are often started in the network of high-school girls.
Teenage girls in Japan also often have good relationships with their mothers, and tell them about things they find interesting. Because of that, NTT's Otsuka expects these girls will talk about the new service to their mothers, who are more likely to send telegrams than their daughters.
Another reason that high-school girls are regarded as trend leaders is that they come up with ideas that no grown-up would think of, according to Rumi Ohdo of Matsushita. His company created a hit product, the Pocket E-cam — a terminal for wireless email. At the first meeting with teenage girls, the company brought a prototype made of cardboard and listened to those girls' ideas, Ohdo said.
The device, for the PHS (personal handyphone system) network, was originally targeted at women in their twenties with careers. When the company did research on the targeted demographic figures, "responses coming back from them were mostly what we had predicted them to say", Ohdo said. "But those high-school girls, they always added something new and eye-opening."
One of the key features of the Pocket E-cam, which came out of meetings with high-school girls, was a built-in digital camera.
The engineers at Matsushita were opposed to the idea because, in order to keep the price affordable, the camera needed to be low-resolution, which the engineers felt too embarrassed to put on the market. However, the girls insisted that it is important to be able to send their own pictures attached to email, irrespective of the quality.
Ohdo is now starting a wireless karaoke service for PHS, and is about to hold meetings with high-school girls at Boom Planning. "Everybody knows that high-school girls are the trend leaders," she said. "High-school girls have more power than our bosses, the business managers."
However, girls are not aware of themselves and their power as trend makers with a strong network. They just seem to adopt something new and interesting out of curiosity, and can't help sending email about it to their friends.
Eri Nakagawa, a 15-year-old high-school student, hangs out in Harajuku, a trendy area of Tokyo packed with teens. She doesn't know what's trendy but she likes to download new screen savers and ringer melodies to her mobile phone, and email her favourite ones to her friends.
Her immediate network consists of 123 addresses listed on her phone, she said. Nakagawa's friend Hitomi, who only gave her first name, also sends a lot of email to some 120 people listed in her phone, and hardly uses it for voice calls. Hatsuko, a 17-year-old, has 227 email addresses on her phone.
Another 17-year-old girl who declined to give her name said screen savers are circulating between her friends via email. Somehow they start anonymously and tell the recipient to forward them to several people. She doesn't mind getting them and forwarding them to her friends because most of the pages she receives are cute and she keeps them on her handset.
And so screen savers, ringer melodies and email on mobile phones have become essential tools for high-school girls. Following that trend, a unit of Japanese toy maker Bandai and content provider BMB have just finished researching with high-school girls at Boom Planning on their new storage service for ringer melodies, Boom's Komoda said. Currently users can only store up to 10 melodies on their handsets and girls who want to have more melodies loved the idea of the storage service, she said.
Bandai also plans to start a new service which allows users to send pictures with music via email on mobile phones, which is similar to electronic greeting card services. The girls at Boom Planning told Bandai that they were not happy with the limited message space, and that just pictures and music are not enough as email. So the company reconsidered the length of the music to reduce the data size, so the email can contain more text.
So, what is going to be really hot soon? The 17-year-old who likes collecting screen savers said that she and her friends' current interest is Sha-mail, or photo-mail. J-Phone recently started selling three handsets with built-in cameras, letting people send email containing photographs.
Although a user of NTT DoCoMo's i-Mode, she is very curious about what it is like to send email with a picture of herself attached, she said.
It seems that Sha-mail is going to be the next big thing in Japan, as other telecommunication carriers recently started marketing handsets with built-in cameras too.