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Japanese Toymakers in Heated Dispute Over Barbie Doll

June 27, 1986 GMT

TOKYO (AP) _ The Barbie doll failed in its introduction to Japan in the 1960s, but the long-time American favorite has been a hot item in the ’80s.

And that success has produced a bitter legal battle between Japan’s two biggest toymakers, which are in court trading charges of unfair competition and breach of faith.

Takara Ltd., Japan’s No. 2 toy manufacturer, is suing a joint venture between Mattel, Barbie’s American maker, and the Japanese toymaker Bandai Co. Ltd.

Takara had sold Barbie dolls, altered to Japanese childrens’ taste, under license from Mattel from 1982. But Mattel abruptly terminated that agreement in January, because it felt Takara was not trying hard enough to sell other Mattel toys, and was leaking Mattel secrets to another American toymaker.

Now Takara claims Mattel and archrival Bandai cloned their new Barbie doll from the Barbie that Takara spent 19 months and 100 million yen, about $590,000, developing.

Bandai, Japan’s top toymaker, began marketing the Barbie last month through the joint venture, MA-BA Corp.

″It’s exactly the same thing as our old Barbie, so we sued under the Unfair Competition Prevention Law,″ says spokesman Shusuke Kubota of Takara, which changed the name from Barbie to Jenny.

Not so, says Fred Tang, managing director for Mattel Asia Ltd. ″We promised Takara to make a different doll. And we did,″ he said in an interview. ″If you ask a young girl if they’re different she’ll say yes. If you ask her if they’re similar she’ll say yes. There’s a kind of similarity: two arms, two legs.″

After unsuccessful attempts by Mattel in Japan in the 1960s to market its American Barbie, of which 1 million a week now are sold worldwide, Takara developed a Barbie that appealed to Japanese children, with a rounder face, huge eyes and small lips.

Takara sold 5.6 billion yen, about $33 million, worth of Barbie dolls last year out of 51 billion yen, or $300 million, in sales, paying Mattel about 300 million yen, or $1.8 million, in royalties, Kubota says. Takara sold 6 million of the dolls.

Things turned sour with Takara’s 1984 tieup with Hasbro, the top U.S. toymaker, to market the successful Transformer robot toy series in the United States. Mattel worried that Takara could leak Mattel secrets to Hasbro, its chief rival.

Mattel approached Takara several times from 1983 to 85 to form a joint venture company to sell Barbies, but each time Takara refused.

Tang said Takara probably cared less about the 4.5 billion yen - $26 million - worth of Barbies it sold in 1984 than the 28 billion yen - $165 million - worth of Transformers it sold to Hasbro the same year.

Kubota insists that Mattel toys didn’t succeed in Japan. ″Takara tried - Masters of the Universe, (Verti-Bird) helicopter, pop-up pictures,″ he says. ″But they just didn’t sell.″

Mattel says Takara didn’t try. Figures such as Masters of Universe (He-Man) need stories on television to sell, but ″Takara never tried to get it on TV,″ Tang said.

In January, Mattel abruptly ended its agreement with Takara and said it would sell in Japan a new Barbie. Takara’s lawsuit seeks to halt MA-BA’s Barbie production.

Tang, calling the suit ″a lot of nonsense,″ notes that the new Barbie is one centimeter taller and twists and bends at the waist.

Miyuki Ishii, a toy salesclerk at Ginza’s Matsuzakaya department store, said, ″I can’t tell the difference. Jenny seems to be selling better, but not many people seem to know there’s a new Barbie.″

Takara and Mattel also are sparring over the dolls’ ad campaigns. ″We especially object to the ad: ‘Barbie has come back from America,’ ″ Kubota says. ″They make it sound as if our Barbie wasn’t the real one.″