Are Japanese people hard-wired to hoard?
Last week’s earthquake and tsunami has engendered a nationwide run on retailers that has alarmed the authorities. Even in Hiroshima, which was totally unaffected by either catastrophe and isn’t in a related earthquake zone, people are said to be stripping store shelves of batteries. Renho, the Democratic Party of Japan superstar who heads the consumer affairs ministry, blasted the mentality that has led to this behavior, saying that she could understand why people might want to buy batteries and portable cookers and even bicycles, but “natto and chicken”? She stressed that it causes shortages of much needed supplies to the afflicted areas and used the word kaishime to describe these actions, which means to “corner the market,” except that she isn’t talking about companies, but individual consumers. In that regard it seems an imprecise term, but the negative connotation is what’s important.
This is not to say that the Japanese people care nothing about the thousands of victims, or that businesses aren’t doing all they can to help out. Banks in the affected region are allowing depositors to access their money without passbooks or cards. But there has also been a hotline set up for people in the area who suspect they are victims of binjo neage, or opportunistic over-pricing. That sounds more like what Renho had in mind when she talked about kishime, but what she meant was different — and a problem that seems almost intractable.
The problem was first made apparent during the oil crisis of 1973, exemplified by an incident that has since become a staple of TV nostalgia shows. When foreign exporters raised the price of oil by as much as 70 percent, Yasuhiro Nakasone, then the Minister of Economy Trade and Industry, was said to have advised citizens to cut down on the use of paper products. Soon thereafter, a supermarket chain in Osaka called Peacock ran a sale on toilet paper, and, responding to rumors of paper shortages, some 300 people quickly cleared the store of some 500 TP packages. The store, delighted, restocked with higher priced TP, which was snatched up just as quickly, but this time the image of housewives fighting for toilet paper was captured by TV crews and became big news. After that, there was a national run on toilet paper.
The explanation for this behavior is that toilet paper was actually still a new thing in Japan. Ten years earlier, it was considered a luxury, and in the meantime everyone has become conditioned to mass consumption. The idea that there might be a “shortage” of something caused panic buying and kaidame (hoarding). The government noticed and based on other rumors that oil importers themselves were taking advantage of the crisis to hoard oil supplies and keep prices high, it passed a law that limited prices for certain goods and materials considered “essential to everyday life,” including soybeans, kerosene, detergent, sugar, cotton and, yes, toilet paper.
But such a law doesn’t prevent consumers from hoarding. According to a recent TBS report, it’s the “sight of an empty shelf” that compels people to seek out the missing item, because the empty shelf implies that the product may not return. What TBS neglected to mention is that the media is complicit in this sort of negative conditioning since they like nothing better than to go to stores and point their cameras at those empty shelves. Aeon and Ito Yokado are now using security personnel and ropes to control shoppers. Yamazaki is presently running its bread factories 24/7 and it still can’t satisfy demand. Logic has nothing to do with it. Japan has plenty of food, as the agriculture minister has commented. What seems to be happening is that people buy anything because, well, you never know. If it is the end of the world, might as well be prepared.