It’s a stupid question, isn’t it? Anyone who’s been to a big Japanese city like Tokyo or Osaka knows what a vibrant exciting place the country is, despite two decades of economic decline.

But (speaking as somebody who lived in Asia for a while) what used to be so fascinating about Japan was its ‘otherness’ – the sheer variety of, to Western eyes, weird and wonderful gadgets, obsessions and consumer trends. This was, after all, the nation that pioneered the use of QR codes and used mobile phones to pay bills in shops. And let’s not forget the gameshows.

So it came as a surprise to read Dentsu’s annual list of ‘hit products’, produced via a study of online word-of-mouth. It’s an interesting glimpse of what’s been going on this year in what remains a difficult-to-read nation.

Number one was smartphones. Odd, you might think, for a country that has had super-wired phones for years. But 2010 was the year of the iPhone in Japan – Apple’s all-conquering smartphone has made huge waves in the country and has topped the phone sales charts for much of the year. Much like everywhere else then. Another big hit, incidentally, was Samsung’s Galaxy S – Korea-made and, like the iPhone, a global success story.

That’s not all. Japan has always been its own market when it comes to web products. Mixi, for example, has long been the lead social network. But what do we find as the number two hot product on Dentsu’s list? Twitter.

In fact the top 20 shows that Japan, far from being a market out on its own, now has remarkably similar tastes to the US and Europe. Tablet devices, eco-friendly products such as hybrid vehicles, flat-screen TVs, 3D TVs and the FIFA World Cup all feature prominently in the top 20.

Thankfully, there’s still hope for those looking for a little Japanese exceptionalism. Lying at number three in the list is ‘munchable chilli oil’.

Here’s the full list (last year’s ranking in brackets):

1: Smartphones (34)
2: Twitter (104)
3: Munchable chili oil (-)
4: Digital broadcasting-equipped widescreen flat-panel TVs (7)
5: Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867; popular historical figure and visionary who played a key role in bringing about the Meiji Restoration. “The Legend of Ryoma” TV drama series has also become a hit.) (101)
6: International flight services at Haneda Airport (-)
7: Tokyo Sky Tree (new broadcasting tower scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012) (-)
8: Eco-point energy-saving home appliances (5)
9: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ (-)
10: LED light bulbs (15)
11: B-grade local gourmet food (term used for inexpensive local food eaten in a casual setting; A-grade refers to expensive gourmet food eaten in a formal setting.) (-)
12: Akira Ikegami (journalist and commentator) (-)
13: Domestic fast fashion brands (Low-priced domestic fashions) (3)
14: GeGeGe’s Wife (TV drama based on the 2008 autobiography by Nunoe Mura, the wife of manga artist Shigeru Mizuki (known for his manga character GeGeGe no Kitaro, a ghost boy who saves the world from evil spirit monsters)) (-)
15: 3D movies, TV, cameras and other 3D products (60)
16: Hybrid vehicles (1)
17: Imported fast fashion brands (64)
18: AKB48 (48-member all-girl theater/idol group with its own theater in Akihabara, Tokyo) (-)
19: Tablet information devices (-)
20: Yoichi Watanabe (war photographer and popular talk-show guest) (-)

For more information, and some predictions on next year's top 10, see the Dentsu press release.