The offerings for Happy Meals toys in Japan at this time cater to both cute-o-philes and car lovers. All images pilfered from McDonald's Japan's web site.
In America, the way in which the children have been thought of has encompassed a variety of changes at McDonald's including offering sliced apples instead of fries and soda being replaced by milk (low-fat, naturally). For reasons that I'm sure are logical to people who actually have children, they also decided that toys had to be taken out of American Happy Meals. Perhaps, they want to be sure that kids aren't nearly as happy as they could be about a Happy Meal and are therefore less likely to want one. Certainly, no one thinks that the toys are making kids fat, do they? Well, maybe they do. Sometimes the logic of some people escapes me and, for all I know, plastic crap made in China may be transmitting contact calories.
I had several discussions with various Japanese people with children about food at McDonald's and the "Happy Meals" in particular. Incidentally, "Happy Meals" are called a "Happy Set" in Japan. By no means are the people i spoke with a representative sample of parents and their opinions of McDonald's food or the inclusion of toys with said sets. However, the fact that the toys were displayed prominently in front of my local Mickey D's for years would seem to be an anecdotal indication that there wasn't a public outcry against using them to market fast food to innocents.
As for what my conversations seemed to reveal, not one person felt that toys were the proverbial apple leading children out of the gustatory Eden of traditional Japanese cuisine. While they did believe that the toys may make kids want to buy the meals in order to get the toys, they said that it was the parents responsibility to make a choice about what to do. In fact, they said that, if they wanted the toys for the kids, they could simply buy the food to get the toy and throw the food away if they were so worried about the nutritional content of fast food. Indeed, many of the parents felt the kids weren't all that interested in the food in many cases anyway.
Menu options for a "happy set" in Japan. Click to see a larger, more legible version.
The usual "happy set" in Japan does not offer the same "healthy" options as American "Happy Meals". In fact, it arguably offers less healthy options as you can choose from among a hamburger, cheese burger, chicken nuggets of small ("petit") pancakes as the main part of the meal. I can only imagine the cries of protest if pancakes were to be an option in America. As the side dish, one can choose fries or sweet corn and the drink options are any small beverage including soft drinks, tea, milk, juice, and milkshakes. Of course, you can also choose a toy option. Currently, people can have "Hello Kitty" toys or "Voov" miniature vehicles. The 15-second promotional commercials for these toys are very stereotypical in that only little boys are shown with the cars and mainly little girls are with the kitty-chan toys. You can view these commercials on the lower right hand side of the "Happy Set" page at present (but I'm sure they'll vanish in the future after this promotion ends).
(Warning: Subjective conclusions and editorial commentary ahead!) One of the things that I concluded about living in Japan is that overall food culture as opposed to specific aspects of that culture is extremely powerful in shaping the health and bodies of the people and that the causes of the lifestyle problems in the U.S. which relate to lifestyle diseases (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) are not the result of the presence of unhealthy or fast food. There is a load of equally unhealthy food in Japan. When Americans try to fix childhood obesity by offering kids apples instead of fries, milk instead of soda, and taking away their toys, they're fixing a broken finger by putting a band-aid on a stubbed toe. Sure, they're both on the body, but one doesn't fix the other. The problem isn't the presence of empty calories being marketed with things kids will nag their parents to get them. The issue is an overall food culture that sees the frequency and volume as such things as being much higher than can support a healthy body. The Japanese, at least for the time being, are still in a place food culture-wise where they don't eat too much of such things too often. Parents don't care about the contents of a Happy Meal/Set because they care about food otherwise. They're not looking at taking their kid's to fast food places often enough for it to be an issue. They're looking at the whole day and entire composition of their children's diet. That's not to say that they never will care, nor that obesity rates aren't increasing in Japan, too (they are). However, for now, the kids can keep their toys, their fries, and even have pancakes if they want them and no one is going to scream "won't somebody please think of the children!"