TOKYO -- English soccer star David Beckham is so popular in Japan he can change fashion overnight. Last year, he did it with his tufted, spiky hairdo. These days, the country deferentially calls his shaggy ponytail a "samurai topknot."
Hounded wherever he goes by throngs of shrieking women, Beckham is probably more famous in Japan and across Asia for those ever-changing hairdos and his marriage to a former Spice Girl than for his deft free kicks. He is rapidly turning into Japan's biggest sports marketing icon in years.
Japanese media speculate Beckham will rake in as much as $17 million during an Asian tour this week, when he makes stops in Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. A recent marketing study in Tokyo found he was the most-liked male foreigner appearing in TV commercials.
"He's a brand - the Beckham brand," said Noriaki Hishiya, spokesman for Meiji Seika Kaisha, a Tokyo candy-maker that signed Beckham as its poster boy to sell chocolate-covered nuts. "He has that sweet face. That goes well with sweet chocolates."
The timing of the trip couldn't be better. Beckham and his wife Victoria landed in Tokyo Wednesday at about the same time news broke on his transfer to Spanish soccer team Real Madrid from England's Manchester United in a $41 million deal.
Joining the Spanish soccer club, which boasts several international stars, is sure to boost Beckham's commercial value, already estimated at nearly $80 million, according to a survey of Britain's richest people in The Sunday Times.
But the talk probably won't focus too much on soccer when Beckham appears before 1,000 preselected fans at an event Friday in Tokyo, where he will answer questions and Meiji will announce new products.
Hishiya said sales of Meiji chocolates doubled in the week after Beckham's Meiji ads first aired several months ago. They showed him lounging in a living room munching on chocolates and gazing adoringly at the box.
His reception here has been nothing short of a frenzy - reminiscent of the madness during the World Cup last year when youngsters sported the spiky hairdo to emulate a man Japan dubbed "Bekkamu-sama" - an honorific reserved for superiors and royalty.
"Typhoon Beckham lands in Japan," a sports newspaper reported Thursday. "Bekkamu-sama decides on Real Madrid, arrives with double topknot," another headline said.
Beckham also promotes mobile phones for Britain's Vodafone and beauty treatments for a Tokyo salon with Victoria, among many other worldwide endorsements.
"He's always with his wife, and they look so natural together," said Madoka Nakanishi, who works for a computer company. "I like the way he carries himself."
The Tokyo salon TBC has built a campaign around the Beckhams, who pop up together on posters and ads for beauty treatments.
"He's got the rock star thing going," said Bob Dorfman of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. "He's very fashionable."
Eleven-year-old Chikara Nakagawa agrees.
"He's cool," he said, proudly wearing a Beckham jersey. "He's great."
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