Archive for January, 2010

Notes on the end of the department store (as we know it)

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Shop til you drop...from boredom

Shop till you drop…from boredom

The announcement that the Seibu department store in the Mullion twin building complex in Ginza will close at the end of the year has occasioned a lot of nostalgic ruminations in the media, even though the complex itself didn’t open until 1984. Seibu is, relatively speaking, a youngster in the annals of the Japanese department store. The older, established stores, like Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakawa and Takashimaya, are still around (though struggling), which is really quite surprising since the whole department store paradigm became passé after the bubble era. If the younger stores like Seibu, Hankyu (which just announced it would soon close its iconic Kyoto store) and Tokyu are biting the dust before their elders it’s mainly because their initial function had less to do with retail sales than with beefing up their respective owners’ main businesses, namely railroads.

The older stores had their roots in the mercantile culture of old Edo or Nagoya or Osaka. The newer stores were built by railway companies that needed something that  would make people use the trains on the weekends. Before the 1970s there were only small grocery stores and company-owned electronics dealers in the suburbs. For the full shopping experience, you had to get on the train and go to an urban center.

So railway companies bought land at main terminuses and built department stores there. Seibu’s was Ikebukuro Station. These department stores thrived because once people started having disposable income in the the 1960s they wanted to spend it. So the companies built other department stores, and not necessarily at their own terminuses.

Continue reading about department stores in Japan →

The art of boro: rags to riches

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Boro shall inherit the earth

Boro shall inherit the earth

Japan was made for hard times. Though there’s no doubt that people are really suffering in the ongoing recession, hardship is hard-wired into the Japanese outlook. Much more than people in the developed West, the Japanese feel truly guilty about taking money they haven’t earned, regardless of whatever it was that made them poor in the first place. People here are expected to make the most of what they have to get by. Economic resourcefulness is practically a sub-genre of TV programming: Like this comedian, you, too, can survive on ¥100 a day!

With such a mindset, it’s easy to romanticize neediness. That seems to be the whole point behind the Boro Exhibition at the new Amuse Museum in Asakusa. Boro, which literally means “rags,” describes apparel that has been handed down for generations and repaired when necessary by stitching pieces of stray cloth over rent or worn fabric. Over time, these garments, usually kaimaki (large coats with oversized sleeves), take on the appearance of patchwork quilts. Some of the boro garments in the museum date as far back as the Edo Period.

Because cotton was unavailable to the average person back in the day, the garments are made of very thick linen without the advantage of insulating batting, so they tend to be very heavy, as much as 14 kg. Boro were used as coats, but they were also used as bedding. Families would spread straw on the ground and sleep naked and huddled together for warmth under all the boro they had in their possession.

Continue reading about boro →

Egg prices: Nobody here but us chickens

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

An egg-celent price, eh?

An egg-celent price, eh?

In Japanese, the term yutosei, or “honors student,” has a wide range of usage that can go beyond the animate. For instance, in the food retail business, eggs and milk are often referred to as “excellent pupils” in that they’ve maintained a stable price over time.

Eggs in particular. Between 1955 and around 1980, the price of 10 eggs (about a kilogram) fluctuated between ¥200 and ¥350. By the bubble years of the late 80s the price had stablized back to around ¥200 and has essentially stayed there ever since, which means that it costs about the same to buy an egg now as it did to buy one in the lean years after the war, when an egg almost qualified as a luxury food item.

Consequently, eggs have always held a certain iconic position in the Japanese diet, and lately have been used by supermarkets and other food retailers as loss leaders or medama shohin, meaning merchandise that are advertised at ridiculously low prices in order to draw customers into a store where they will presumably buy other products. The Price, Ito Yokado’s chain of discount supermarkets, last week was advertising packages of 10 eggs for only ¥99, and I saw a piece on TV Tokyo’s Business New Satellite that mentioned a supermarket that was selling them for ¥88.

Continue reading about eggs in Japan →

New recruits quickly get reality checked

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

The survey doesn't ask how new grads feel about wearing cheap suits

The survey doesn’t ask how new grads feel about wearing cheap suits

Nihon Seisansei Honbu, a research center that specializes in productivity, has carried out a survey since 1991 among recent college graduates who have entered the work force. They hand out the questionnaires twice a year, once in the spring just as new grads are starting work in their shiny new suits, and a second time six months later after the same shakaijin (members of society, which is what you are called once you actually enter the work force) have had a chance to see what the working life is all about.

In 2006 the survey started including a statement that went something like “I don’t need more money than others my age as long as I am making enough to live on.” Last spring, only 36.2 percent of those surveyed gave an affirmative response to this statement, but six months later the percentage rose to 41.7 percent, the highest it’s ever been. Granted, negative responses were higher, 52.9 percent, but Asahi Shimbun, for one, analyzed these results as meaning that the longer these people were on the job, the more they realized how precarious their situation was. Being employed wasn’t a guarantee.

Continue reading about new company recruits →

Stockholder coupons bite JAL in the butt

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

This ticket shop will pay more than twice as much for an ANA stockholder coupon as for a JAL coupon

This ticket shop will pay more than twice as much for an ANA stockholder coupon as for a JAL coupon

The crisis at Japan Airlines has indirectly introduced a lot of people to the fairly common practice of kabunushi yutai, meaning “privileges for stockholders.” The practice seems to be unique to Japanese corporations, which give special treatment to shareholders when there are no dividends to distribute. If the company is a manufacturer, it may actually give away its products or discounts on its products. In the case of JAL, shareholders received coupons that could be used for discounts of up to 50 percent on air fares, tours, hotels and other JAL-related services.

In the past couple of weeks these stockholder coupons have become a hot commodity. Because they are given away to stockholders and, according to the government entity that is overseeing JAL’s rehabilitation, coupons “so far issued” will be honored, their sale value has gone up a bit at so-called ticket shops.

Ticket shops are those retail businesses that resell travel tickets, gift coupons, postage, or anything that has a face value. Usually, people who receive such coupons and tickets for free (either as gifts or premiums or even as part of their job) sell them to ticket shops at below their face value, and then the ticket shops resell them at a price just a bit below face value. It’s perfectly legal.

JAL shareholders seem to have a lot of these coupons since JAL hasn’t had too many profitable years since it went private in the 1980s, and so they have always sold these coupons to ticket shops. But until the media started paying attention to the possibility that the company would go bankrupt the average person didn’t know about them. According to one news show I saw, due to increased demand the average price of a single coupon has risen from about 2,500 yen to 3,300 yen in about a week’s time. Ticket shops tend to pay a little more than 1,000 yen to buy them now. It used to be about 2,000 yen, but it dropped when JAL’s share prices did.

If a lot of people suddenly use these coupons – and JAL will have to honor them – then it will be bad news for the airline, since they need all the money they can get. They can hardly afford to give 50 percent discounts to hordes of travelers.

Annals of cheap: Kitchen Dive

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Stacked in your favor

Stacked in your favor

One of the gauges the media uses to monitor the scourge of deflation is the price of bento, the “lunch boxes” of the hoi polloi. Back in the 1980s, I regularly bought a noriben for  ¥370 from the chain bento-ya Hokahoka, which has since renamed itself Hotto Motto. Noriben is traditionally the cheapest bento, and consists of rice with shaved bonito and a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) on top, accompanied by a small croquette or piece of grilled salmon or fried mackerel and some tsukemono (pickles). Above that there are variations on the rice-and-okazu (side dish) theme culminating in the makunouchi grade, so named because it was consumed during sumo tournaments and kabuki performances.

About two years ago reports started appearing about food stalls in shotengai (shopping arcades) selling uniform-sized bento for a uniform price of ¥350. Since then the price has regularly come down in jumps of ¥50. This trend seemed to have hit a wall at ¥250, but last year a take-out kitchen near Higashi Azuma Station in Sumida Ward called Kitchen Dive started offering bento for ¥200, and practically every wide show and quite a few regular food-related variety shows have covered the place.

Continue reading about Kitchen Drive →

Debit cards are the way to go

Monday, January 11th, 2010

The keypad to happiness

The keypad to happiness

Over the holidays I made several major purchases using my bank card rather than cash or a credit card. I’m sometimes surprised that more people don’t use their bank cards (or “cash cards” or “ATM cards” or however you want to refer to them) as debit cards, since most can be utilized that way. Of course the retailer has to accept debit card payments, but I’ve found that many larger ones do.

The advantage of using a debit card is obvious. There’s no need to carry large amounts of cash, and charges are immediately subtracted from your bank account, or on the next business day if you’re making the purchase on a weekend or holiday, or at night. Actually, some people may find this latter point a disadvantage if they aren’t always sure how much money they have in their account at any given moment, in which case a credit card might be better since the withdrawal (assuming you are using your card as a deferred payment card and not as an actual credit card) won’t be made until the next month or whenever payments are normally made from your card-specific account. But I think most people have a good idea how much money is in their account. The most important consideration is that it doesn’t cost you anything to use a debit card.

Continue reading about debit cards in Japan →


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