Who Needs Real Models When Cartoon Characters Can Sell Fashion?

In the homeland of Manga (comics) and Anime (animated films), it seems the world of S1m0ne (SIMONE) has come true. Who needs real actors (that make unreasonable demands and requires millions to get them to do what you want them to) when fictional characters can do better?

Best selling Manga-come-TV-and-Movie-Series "ONE PIECE" has crossed that line in Japan along with Hirohiko Araki's "Jojo" series where cartoon characters are dressed in available-in-real-life Gucci and A/X Armani Exchange.

Araki and his "Jojo" character, Rohan made history as a cartoon character made the cover of a fashion magazine for the SPUR October 2012 issue. Since then, Gucci and Araki have collaborated with a Gucci x Jojo exhibition at the Gucci Shinjuku boutique and once again, with Araki's character Joyline dressed in Gucci's cruise line for SS2013 in a book-in-book for SPUR's February 2013 issue on stands now.

During the Gucci x Jojo exhibition, sneakers with price tags exceeding 70,000 yen and a featured bag selling for over 200,000 yen were purchased by Araki fans, proving that the collaboration did not only pay off by generating a lot of foot traffic and buzz, but it actually converted to sales of luxury items.

The 12th and latest ONE PIECE film, "ONE PIECE Z," has A/X Armani Exchange dressing the leading characters in some scenes. The garments are featured on real life models in popular men's fashion magazine, Men's Non-no's January 2013 issue, on stands now, and will be available for sale in the brand's Shibuya boutique on a limited basis.

Once upon a time, Manga and Anime were thought to be for a limited group of geeks who knew nothing of fashion and dressed poorly. But Araki has changed that by having his cult series characters dressing in luxury brand items and proving that it actually converts to real life sales.

How well A/X Armani Exchange will do with the ONE PIECE endorsement is yet to be seen, with the movie just opening on 15 December and Men's Non-no going on sale on 10 December, but this certainly is a move in a different direction from having T shirts printed with ONE PIECE characters go on sale at ZOZO TOWN and UNIQLO, much akin to Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse.

If such authors as Araki and ONE PIECE creator Eiichiro Oda can have their characters endorse a brand and convert that to sales, perhaps the 2002 movie S1m0ne (SIMONE) was not that far off after all. And what better place for such fantasy (or threat?) come to life than Japan?


Japanese Department Store Sales May See First YOY Growth Since 1996 - Nikkei

The Nikkei reported on the figures released by the Department Stores Association of Japan (headquartered in Tokyo) on 18 December whereby gross turnover for the month of November was announced to be 554.2 billion yen (US$6.6 billion). This is a 2.2% increase over the same period in the previous year on an existing store basis; and the first time in seven months that the figures exceeded those of the previous year. It is now hopeful that annual revenue in 2012 may exceed those of the previous year for the first time since 1996, or in 16 years. 

The Nikkei also attributes this to the fact that the mercury has been falling lower than previous years, giving a much needed boost to sales of coats, scarves, and gloves. Newly renovated stores in both Tokyo and Osaka generated larger foot traffic as well. 

Clothing sales have seen growth for the first time in three months, by 3.4%; and in particular, men's clothing and accessories were up 5.8% while women's clothing and accessories were up by 3.0%. But home wares and accessories have fallen 5.1%.

Of course, one must bear in mind that 2011 figures saw a steep fall due to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 11 March 2011.
The department stores are badly in need of good news and thus it is time there was some. 
Hankyu Umeda has just spent 60 billion yen to renovate the store, and is aiming to achieve revenues of 213.0 billion yen in the first year. Though the store had "sneak peek" openings in certain sections of its stores, the post-renovation grand opening was on 21 November. 
Isetan Shinjuku in Tokyo has just spent 9.0 billion yen to renovate its main area - women's clothing and accessories and is shooting for 235.0 billion yen in fiscal 2011. And so far, it claims the investment has paid off with a 60% boost in revenue YOY.
The Japanese retail market is now estimated to be around 135 trillion yen, and department stores have approximately 5% market share. There are entire generations - mainly the F1 and F2 group (young, urban female adults) - who claim they have never made a purchase in a department store in their lives, so the challenges are huge. 
Will Japanese department stores go extinct as the older generation pass away (even though we do have the world's longest living women)? Or, will such renovations enable Japanese department stores to get out of the addiction to markdowns and get them back on track to the aspirational shopping destinations they once were?
Even Isetan Shinjuku has offered "an additional 10% discount for a limited period" to its branded credit card holders leading up to its grand re-opening, which was at the beginning of the AW2012 season.
Among suppliers and brands, Japanese department stores are notorious for being "real estate agents" whereby their staff only man the cash registers and the rest is handled by the brands that put the goods on the floor as well as the sales assistants on a concession basis. This means that technically, the department stores do not "own" most of the goods on the floors until the item is scanned at the cash register as it is purchased. 
This practice squeezes the margins out of the brands, with "rent" being as high as 50% off the retail price for some goods, and around 32% on average. 
As I have run businesses for both Japanese and overseas brands, I have noted that this is the biggest choke on department store retail for brands. The other expenses, be it utility costs, overhead, or marketing - come in at around the same percentage of revenue as in any other OECD market. But this "rent" really is the killer. 
And, as revenue (read, "sell through") has been shrinking for the last 15 years, it has become more and more costly to do business with or through department stores, especially if your target audience are among the F1 and F2 group.
Some brands targeting women aged 19 - 25 years of age claim that being in department stores is a total waste because 2/3 of their revenue comes through mobile commerce and ZOZO Town and the rest comes through fashion buildings or terminal buildings (commercial facilities adjacent to terminal train stations).
Traditionally, the first days of trade in the new year are great indicators for the year ahead, so we will get some clear market messages as consumers vote with their wallets. 


Isetan Shinjuku Sees 60% Increase in Sales Over Previous Year After Renovation

According to the Saturday SENKEN, distributed on 8 December 2012, Isetan Shinjuku announced that sales of womenswear accessories increased by 60% over the same period the previous year in one week following the completion of its renovation on 28 November.

The accessories floor space has been doubled from prior to the renovation with 30% to 50% more SKUs on the shelves. Isetan claims to have not only bulked up on the moderate price zone items, its mainstay for this category, but also focused on enhanced quality.

In the first week following the renovation, there was 23% more foot traffic and average purchase value per customer was 25% higher, bringing the average unit purchase price up by 2,000 yen. There was no significant change in the highest volume price range, but Isetan says that there were substantially more purchases in the higher price zone. In particular, for scarves, its second price rage of 26,000 yen as well as the more expensive 40,000 to 50,000 yen range did well. The most popular leather gloves were priced from 13,000 to 19,000 yen; hats did well in the 13,000 yen, 20,000 yen, and 40,000 yen price ranges. Thanks to the increase in the higher quality (and priced) merchandise, higher volume sales were recorded in those items.

The key focus of the renovation was to re-zone the floor to better fit how customers shop. Items were split into those that are purchased alone and those that are coordinated with other items such as clothing.

The former consists of handkerchiefs, vanity cases, and umbrellas, that are now located along the major passages. Items that are coordinated with other items such as belts, gloves, stoles, hats, and hair accessories are concentrated in the center of the space.

Isetan also added new categories in womenswear such as glasses and sunglasses, accessories watches, and bag organizers. At the same time, brooches have been merchandised near the scarves, and eyewear accessores were added as well. As it is off season for sunglasses, 70% of sales of eyewear were for glasses with branded frames of popular brands selling well.

Loyal customers who are entitled to 10% discounts when using the house card recorded an 80% increase in sales over the same period, making multiple purchases along with apparel.

Isetan increased the number of sales assistants on the floor and added two new changing rooms. Large tables are merchandised with a mix of brands and items, and there are now five times more small, medium, and large mirrors on the floor.

Additional personalized services are also on offer - some for free, others at a fee - such as a wider selection of wrapping materials, embroidery service for handkerchiefs, and a skin colour diagnosis system to assist in the selection of stockings.

The promotional space has also been expanded to feature products according to fashion styles, occasions, and as solutions.

(Original text in Japanese distributed by the SENKEN. Translation and summary done by CarpeDiemJapan.com)


So Mixi now has an Official Facebook Page...

Struggling former KING of Japanese SNS, Mixi has created an official Facebook page! WOW.

-mixi Xmas 2012-

A recent article in the Nikkei says that Mixi's active users (users who use Mixi more than once a month) has declined from its peak of 15,470,000 of May 2011to 14,020,000 in September 2012.

On the other hand, the COO of Facebook has reportedly blogged in September 2012 that active users in Japan exceeded 16 million, which led to a host of speculative news reporting that Facebook has finally overtaken Mixi.

Twitter users are said to 20 million in various surveys and home grown messaging-giant-come-SNS, LINE, now boasts 35 million users in Japan alone.

Once not so long ago, it was said that Facebook could never dominate Japan because of the unique mobile phone ownership/usage behavior of Japanese; namely, our attachment to our KEITAI phones that are nothing like the GSM phones or smartphones.

But 2012 saw a surge in the number of smartphones in active use as market leader Docomo launched a suite of Android phones that converted hard core Docomo users who would not go near an iPhone with a 10-foot pole to join the rest of the industrialized world in its use of smartphones. As at November 2011, Fuji Chimera Research reported that there were 26,830,000 smartphone accounts in Japan, out of the total of 113,340,000 mobile accounts. The think tank also projected that by 2016, smartphone accounts will reach 95 million, and account for 80% of total mobile phone accounts in Japan.

Mixi is steadily seeing access to its service switch from approximately 40% via smartphones in January 2012 to over 60% in September, but it seems it is losing advertising revenue and after the "konpu gacha" debacle, its games revenue is not enough to make up for it.

Earlier this month, Mixi announced a collaboration with DeNA, which will enable to the two companies to share game development platforms. But in response to questions from reporters about whether Mixi is going to become a gaming platform like GREE, CEO Kenji Kasahara said "No." Gaming is merely a secondary part of Mixi's business, he says, and Mixi will use the income gained through gaming to enhance the social networking platform.

I have seen research that indicated that Mixi users are younger and less affluent than Facebook users. Perhaps that gives businesses more reason to divert their advertising dollars to Facebook.

Another article in the Nikkei recently indicated that LINE vouchers have a 7% to 8% response rate, more than double the average 3% seen through other services. Perhaps this is another reason for advertisers to pull their resources out of Mixi and into LINE instead.

Either way, Mixi obviously sees the need to take action or die, but how unexpected it was to see an official Facebook Page, although it is not for Mixi itself, but for Mixi Xmas 2013, a seasonal event/campaign.

I doubt I would ever see a Cartoon Network ad on Disney Channel, but in the world of SNS, it seems such is possible. I wonder how this will help Mixi; and is this a sign of confidence on the part of Facebook?


Taking Stock: Getting to know the 'in-line' shopper | Retail in Asia

Taking Stock: Getting to know the 'in-line' shopper | Retail in Asia

Great article and interesting projection.
But wait. In Japan, "in-line" shoppers have been switching from in store to online freely WITHOUT a smartphone.

Yes, the in-line shoppers of Japan feel comfortable trying things on for size in a brick and mortar store, and then going online to their "keitai" or mobile shopping sites to make the purchase.

In such cases, retailers are not really cutting costs for that particular sale - rather, instead of ringing up the sales where a sales assistant has spent time with the consumer, that top line is being recorded as an online sale... But could they have made that sale without the brick and mortar store? And can one not argue that having the brick and mortar store has actually saved the online store from potential exchanges due to size not being right or returns due to expectations or fit being different/not right?

I am not sure I can agree with the notion that smartphone users are more likely to shop online than "keitai" users when it comes to Japan. Because smartphones are more expensive than "keitai" mobile phones, their users are wealthier and older - unless of course, we are talking about students on a family plan paid for by parents. So let's refer to the "account owners" - the people who actually pay for the plans. In this case, smartphone users are older and wealthier, but tend to be more conservative when it comes to shopping behavior.

But the whole point is that in-line shopping is already here to stay and the article highlights the importance of retailers making a fundamental shift in their thinking about online and off line shopping.
They are one and the same because the consumers are one and the same.

In-line shopping has additional benefits to the aforementioned about returns and exchange costs. I believe it also helps to cut down on opportunity loss due to stock outs. Consumers used to in-line shopping will go online if their size is not available and make the purchase on the spot, rather than to place an order through the retail outlet and come back at a later date by which time they may have (a) changed their minds; or (b) purchased an alternative somewhere else.

And I have no doubt that in-line purchases will increase. Not necessarily because more smartphones will be in the market, but because that is how consumers are shopping now.

I myself have recently experienced a huge benefit through in-line shopping - for of all things, a smartphone!

BlackBerry phones have such a small market share in Japan that I can never actually get my hands on a unit at a store. They need to be ordered through the store and I was told it may take up to 7 days for the store to get one. But they could not tell me when that would be.

This is Japan. A seven-day window is NOT acceptable. I am used to being told exactly what date, and often, by what time ordered items would be ready for me to pick up.

So I was sitting in front of the sales assistant in a NTT Docomo shop, him on his computer checking inventory and ready to place an order for me. I went online with my iPhone (because my Blackberry had suddenly died and hence, I needed a replacement), and got onto the Docomo Online Store. In a matter of minutes, I was able to place an order for a new BlackBerry using my accumulated loyalty points for a 60% discount on the unit, and even got a tracking number for my parcel which would be delivered to my home in two days between 12:00 pm and 14:00 - the time slot I chose.

I guess it is more accurate to say that my online experience was more beneficial to me as a consumer than my in store experience. And I wonder how the sales assistant felt about that. How can a consumer get better service than a directly operated retail outlet? Perhaps that is the difference between an internal logistics system and using a courier.

Of course, as an avid and very loyal BlackBerry user, I probably would not have purchased a different smartphone regardless of whether I was online or in a store. But it did help to be in the store to actually see a demo model and be confident in my choice.

A recent article in the NIKKEI indicated that LINE, Japan's home grown free chat and call service as well as SNS, has officially launched commercial accounts for brands and businesses as it has been proven that vouchers and comments posted on LINE has a material impact on generating traffic to brick and mortar stores.

Official figures indicate that LINE has 75 million users in 230 countries, but 40% of the users are Japanese and in Japan. According to the NIKKEI, Lawsons, the convenient store giant, has distributed 1.5 million 50% discount coupons for "L chiki" (chicken), retailing for 128 yen per piece. Of those, 100,000 consumers actually came to the store to use their vouchers. In a market where average coupon response rates are around 3%, LINE delivers 7% to 8%, making it worthwhile for businesses to take the service's "Online to Off Line" business concept seriously.

But do these vouchers only work in that way?

I don't think so.

More than once, I have actually been in a store, saw POP signs that said "email newsletter subscribers can receive 5% off today - show us your vouchers at check out" or "don't forget to show us your discount vouchers from the App" AND THEN gone online in the store to fetch my coupon for the discount I did not even know I was eligible for before I walked into the store.

This happens because my inbox and direct messages box are already quite full of daily commercial announcements and I delete quite a few of them without really looking at them.

In such cases, the retailer has actually invested in acquiring a customer they already had... but that is a risk they need to take, I guess. And it is better than physical coupons because if it was a DM piece I had received but failed to bring with me, thus disqualifying me for the discount, it would have left a bitter taste in my mouth. Never mind that it was MY fault for not bringing the DM piece with me to qualify for the discount - as unreasonable as consumers usually are, I would have blamed the retailer for not being flexible enough or not valuing me as a customer enough. Because it was an eDM or eVoucher, I could retrieve it on the fly and feel satisfied.


Fashion Magazine or Catalogue or Both?

Japanese fashion magazines are often referred to as having catalogue like layout and being way too full of products and not enough editorial content.

Part of that is due to the publications being way too happy to accept advertorials as a key income stream and thus, there is so much paid advertisement disguised as editorial content that Japanese fashion editors are more like merchandisers for such advertisement than journalists.

Services exist whereby consumers can contact a web site and tell them that they want an item featured in XXX magazine on page XX so that they do not have to do the leg work themselves, but publications have now crossed the threshold over to the catalogue side of publications.

VOGUE NIPPON (Conde Nast Japan) may still insist on being a publication selling information and inspiration, but rival ELLE (Hearst Fujingaho) has the ELLE Shop, and it looks like any other online store....

Actually, Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi look far more glamorous than the ELLE Shop... The site's key selling point is that it is a "select shop" edited by the editors of ELLE, but unfortunately, there is very little "editorial" inspiration and direction visible in the shop.

Fashion magazine publisher Shueisha, who publishes SPUR and other titles truly leads the way in terms of trade volume with FlagShop.


Non-no, MORE, BAILA and the other names in the tabs are separate publications and each have their own home page. But the e-commerce function is consolidated in this one place. With promises of free shipping, next-day shipping, and that returns and exchanges are welcome, the site is a serious e-commerce destination.

Kobunsha, publisher of such popular titles as VERY, CLASSY, and STORY, has kokode.jp.

Of course the online stores and publications are heavily linked, and some magazines actually have analogue inserts of the fashion catalogues for the online store in some issues.

What is interesting is that Kobunsha has a links section, which takes users to a landing page that clearly stipulates that clicking through means going directly to the brands' online stores and that the publisher (Kobunsha) is not to be held responsible or liable for any exchanges and transactions between the consumer and the brands' online stores. Obviously, this is a revenue stream for them while Shueisha seems to have decided that it is best that their audience stays in their site.

Another interesting thing, while studying the products promoted on the sites, is that the publications have already caught on that "buying" products from the brands does not offer enough margins and that it is more lucrative to develop their own private label products - the golden goose for select shops throughout Japan (and abroad, I am sure. We don't have to look far: Opening Ceremony is but one obvious example).

Advertisers can be offered a comprehensive package of both digital and analogue coverage, but also a distribution agreement, whereby highlighted products can be sold through the publication as well (whether they will actually buy the goods up front or ask that it be done on a commission basis depends on the strength of your brand).

Perhaps interesting to note while on the topic is that some (especially late night) TV programmes  are strongly linked to tv shopping and online stores which may be their own. And when a brand is featured on the programme, the brand may also be offered a distribution deal whereby featured product can be sold through their retail channel on a time limited basis.

It is obvious from monster publication Sweet (Takarajima), whose volumes grew four fold in a short time and exceeded 1 million copies a month while other respected titles were going out of business and being taken off shelves, that readers in Japan do not necessarily buy magazines for the editorial content. Sweet's secret to success is the gifts with purchase in every issue. I was told that the CEO does not attend editorial meetings, but when it comes to meetings deciding what to include in the next issue as a gift, he makes sure he has his say.

Now, it seems, some of the more trend-setting publications are becoming more catalogue than magazine and while this means they are fighting with their advertisers for the consumers' share of wallet, it is a growing trend one cannot ignore.


"Look and Feel 20 Years Younger" - The Latest Obsession in the Fastest Aging Nation

Forget the creams and serums that promise you'll look 5 years younger.

The latest craze in Japan is to look and feel 20 years younger!!!

The "Evangelists" of the trend are men and women in their 50s and older who themselves are their best ads in that they actually DO look 20 years younger their biological age.

Be it beauty evangelist Chizu Saeki (born in 1943) or "beauty life producer" Mieko Yoshimaru (born in 1949) or medial PhD Yoshinori Nagumo (born 1955) and a whole host of other doctors and beauticians and exercise specialists, bookstores are stacked with their books with flashy posters and eye catchers shouting "LOOK 20 YEARS YOUNGER THAN YOUR AGE."

 Saeki Chizu's "Bihada Seikatsu" or "Beautiful Skin Life" promises to change your skin in 3 days.

After a long career selling cosmetics, Saeki insists that it is not so much WHAT one puts on the skin, but HOW they are applied. She focuses on the correct ways and the order to apply cosmetics to enjoy the full benefits of them and preaches that one can always have a beautiful complexion if one is only willing. 

Yoshinori Nagumo shares his 100 secrets that make him look 20 years younger
Yoshinori Nagumo is a medical doctor who was overweight and unattractive in his 30s, but after being seriously scared to death after his father's stroke, decided to make changes in his life that transformed him to the ageless man he is today. 

Mieko Yoshimoto speaks of using the power of imagination to trigger female hormones to become more active and to visually remake one's entire face and body.

She herself claims to have changed from frumpy divorced mom to this ageless beauty by willing herself to have the face of Audrey Hepburn and the body of Marilyn Monroe.

Of course her friends and family laughed at her at first, but once she began to change, there was a long queue at her front door.

Popular fashion magazine "eclat" has a successful mook series (mook is magazine + book, a new publication format that has become popular in Japan with entire mooks designated to brands like a "Chanel Mook" or "Marc Jacobs Mook" which features the season's entire collections, often comes with a little gift with purchase such as a tote bag, and is in the size and format of a magazine) titled "Aging Bible" whose Vol.3 (3rd in the series) is now on shelves.

Each issue features a different aging/anti-aging topic and features a 40-something or 50-something celebrity on its cover who, of course, looks like she is in her 30s.

The first issue covered menopause and the various countermeasures one can take, as well as interviews of popular actresses and models, one of whom is 60 but appeared on the runway with teenage models.

The second issue was about maintaining beautiful hair and skin and detoxing.

The third issue is about well-defined face lines and necks.

There are many more books and methods and web sites out there that have beautiful, ageless beauties fronting them, and thousands of followers who diligently practice what is preached to be ageless beauties themselves.

The most popular methods and their protagonists that survive the test of time are those that (a)  do not carry prohibitive price tags; (b) promise reasonably fast (often from around 1 week to a month) results but not instant results; and (c) whose effects are sustainable in the longer term.

Most do not promote expensive creams or serums or supplements, but rather, promise to be affordable and encourage readers and followers to be proactive. They talk about making the correct eating, sleeping, and exercising choices. 

There is a lot of reference in the media about how "westernization" of our lifestyle has had negative health effects on Japanese society in general.

Many people point to the 1977 "McGovern Report" or the report titled "Dietary Goals for the United States" compiled by the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs that concluded that the ideal meal was what the common folk in Japan ate in pre-Genroku era Japan, which consisted of whole grain rice, fish, and vegetables.

We, the Japanese people, traditionally ate much fish, vegetables and grain but very little saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar. But our fish consumption has declined significantly in the last 60 years and the younger generation eat as little as only a third of what the pre-war generation consume per capita. And on the other hand, meat and saturated fats consumption has skyrocketed.

Obesity is not yet as big a problem here as it is in the United States. But there are increased incidents or heart diseases and diabetes.

The popularity of these "look 20 years younger" celebrities and their methods is a clear message that the fastest aging population does not wish to be the world's most aging and sick population whose lives are prolonged by medical intervention that will break everyone's banks. 

"I am not suggesting ways for us to become energetic old men and women," one such celebrity says. "I want more people to look and feel younger!" The distinction he makes is the difference between looking and acting 59 vs. looking and acting 39 when one is actually 59.

The fashion industry here has been trying to redefine the new 50s+ age group and what they want.

My very own 69-year old mother just last night went through a catalogue targeting 40plus woman and said,
"My god, all these clothes look so frumpy!"
And to think she should be among the target audience.

I must have been mistaken when I thought that it is the current youths who refuse to dress like their parents or the generation that came before them... It seems, women in their 50s and 60s today refuse to dress like the "old women" they are accustomed to seeing now that they are their age.


My 120-year Life Plan ~ Healthy Diet

"Your experience and career track record suggests that you are actually older than you look," said a consultant, who was repeating a comment I get quite often these days. I am not sure what an "average 45-year old" is supposed to look like, but I am told I do not look my age.

Then, the same gentleman said, "people your age start looking for something to stick to for the rest of their careers, but you sound like someone who continues to look for something exciting, like a much younger person."

So I had to tell him that at 45, I am NOT looking for my "last gig" because I plan to live to be 120 years old, and as such, 45 is not half my life gone, but rather, only a third of the way there.

If I retired at age 60, what will I do for the next 60 years?

Yesterday, I purchased the latest issue of PRESIDENT, one of my favourite publications, whose monthly theme is "How People Who Make 10 Million Dollars Study."

Yes, we are a very diligent people who love to "study" all our lives. It is a virtue we value and praise, and drill into our children.

What is interesting about the cover story is that one of the first things it says that the top 3 MUST HAVES to become rich beyond one's dreams are:

1. physical and mental health
2. love for one's work
3. honest character

And the WORST THREE ATTRIBUTES to have are:

1. graduated from a top university
2. is clever
3. high IQ and sharp mind

How ironic is that?

But what is key is that the No.1 MUST HAVE is something that money cannot necessarily buy - good health.

I read somewhere that we are genetically programmed to be able to live to 120 years old. But due to our poor diet, lack of exercise, pampered modern lifestyles, we tend to fall anywhere from 40 years to 60 years short of that.

Today, 40% of our 128 million people in Japan are over the age of 65. Our average life expectancy is 86.1 years for women and 79.0 years for men.

I also read that regardless of country, in most cases, the average life expectancy after a person is diagnosed with an illness is 7 years. So, having the world's longest living people just means our people get sick a bit later than those in other countries.

In 1992, I was diagnosed with cervical dysplasia at age 32, which was within a year of my then husband being diagnosed with two brain tumours and given less than 2% chance to live past 2 years. But we both beat the odds and he is well and alive today while I have not had any recurrence and I have since given birth to healthy twins at age 39.

My file at the obstetrician's had 3 bold comments written on the top next to my name:

ADVANCED AGE PREGNANCY (in Japan, women who get pregnant for the first time over the age of 35 are labeled in this way)

TWINS (can't argue about that)

PARTIAL HYSTERECTOMY (it is also a fact)

Anyone, regardless of age, who is pregnant with twins or more is told to stay put. We are denied access to things like maternity yoga and swimming classes for fear of early deliveries.

I continued to train in Taekwon-do, though I only did the patterns and no sparring.

I was told to control my weight gain to about 10kgs, but by the time I was in week 36, I was 18.5kg heavier and my belly measured 118cm.

But I managed to give natural birth to the twins at 37 weeks and 0 days and they were just short of being premature at 2,478g each in weight.

I firmly believe that "reset" my system so that I could mother twins and not go straight into menopause.

Ever since my brush with the pre-cancerous condition, I have been a pesco-veggie (my blood type is A and as a Japanese national, I do not seem to need meat) and I continue to train.

In the last year, I have lost 4kg and now 6% points in body fat thanks to a "Clean and Lean" diet programme that ensures that I have all the nutrients I need to build a healthy body and function well. It has literally changed my body chemistry to free me of my pollen allergy as well!

I am not sure if losing the 4kg or the 6% points in body fat made the difference, but I am now 2 sizes smaller in jeans and almost 3 sizes smaller in tops, especially if they are close fitting. This is forcing me to purge my wardrobe of all my "fat clothes," which actually means most of my clothes up to last year, so my closet is becoming clean and lean as well. (^^)

Who would have thought a 44-45-year old mother of twins would be in this situation a year ago? It certainly was not me.

And today, I find myself thinking A LOT about the next 75 years.

What I really want to do, who I really want to spend that time with, and my dreams and hopes for both my children and my parents.

As a parent, I want my children to have the best possible education (maybe not at top schools if the article is giving me good tips), life-enriching experiences both small and large, and access to safe food and water.

As a child, I want my parents to have healthy, stress-free lives, and to be able to share as many experiences with them as possible because their 120 years are going to be up before mine.

My 69-year old mother is often mistaken for my sister. 
She has radiant skin, great posture, and is almost always smiling.
When she steps on the scale, it measures her body fat (now around 26%) and weight and tells her she has the body of a 51-year old.

If she really was 51 years old, I guess it is not surprise that people think that she and 45-year old me are sisters.

She was operated on for coronary artery blockage this February. Since then, she has been taking aloevera juice and DHA/EPA supplements to help manage her blood cholesterol levels as well as to strengthen her arteries. She is taking hyaluronic acid as well.

The same scale tells me that I have the body of a 32-year old.

A doctor wrote that biological aging and "growing old" are not the same thing. He says the former is a biological phenomenon that is measured by the amount of time one has been in existence since birth. The latter is an indication of the degree of reduction in bodily functions that occur as the body ages to slow it down or function less effectively due to "wear and tear."

Popular marketing buzz words in the health industry in Japan today include "anti-rusting" of the body and having "smooth flowing blood."

There is always talk of how we should go back to our traditional diet and pass up on the western bread, pasta, and fried foods because that is what our current active octogenarians and older have been eating to be where they are today.

I am reminding once again, every day, as I feel water and food pass through my system that we are indeed what we eat. So each and every one of us who intend to live our full 120 years need to be thinking every day at every meal about how our choices are contributing to or taking away from that goal.


Buying MLM Products is Just Another Consumption Choice

I cannot quite remember when we last talked about sellers having more control over consumption than buyers. Was there ever such a time? Or am I just dreaming it?

But I recall there once was a time when going to retail stores was the only way we could purchase things except for the few door to door salesmen that we had visiting us.

Back in those days, they were educational books and encyclopedia sellers, pharmaceutical salesmen, insurance saleswomen (it has always been the women who do the most selling of life insurance in this country), and maybe the Avon ladies...

But then, the Tupperware home parties came along and Multi-Layered Marketing (MLM) or network marketing businesses like Amway happened, and before I knew it, I was receiving more direct mail and mail order catalogues in my letterbox than actual mail from friends, family, and acquaintances.

I do remember as a child, how excited my mother was about going to the Sears Catalogue store where she could see samples of the goods that are in the catalogue and sometimes pick purchases up (I think).

But ever since I came of age some 25 years ago, there have been products that can only be purchased through mail order or online, and not through retail stores. And as the years go by, there is more and more talk about how consumer behavior and choices drive the market.

I recently learned that MLM has been around for half a century now, and after some encounters - both pleasant and not - with distributors of one MLM company or another and trying some products somewhere down the line, I have come to accept MLM as another distribution channel.

Provided the distributor is not forced to go out and recruit more distributors, one can merely participate in MLM as a consumer: just treat the purchases like one would any other online purchase and treat the meager monthly bonuses as a cash back for one's daily consumption of the goods.

As I love to network but am shocking at network marketing, I am definitely a "dead lead" for my upper line. But then again, I confess up front that I am this way and chose to sign up only with sponsors who promise NOT to push me to recruit more distributors.

It probably frustrates some of them as I am missing out on a "golden opportunity" to earn more and quit my day time job, but so far, MLM products that I consume are part of my portfolio of hero products that I pick from brands I trust.

It is hard for me to become totally devoted to a brand like Amway to the point where everything I touch and consume is Amway. I have learned over the years that there are some bloody good products out there that are sold through traditional retail systems that I love.

Besides, who has not been terrified by the glazed eye look some MLM distributors have when they go into talking about the bonus schemes?

I like the concept that since MLM companies pool their marketing dollars and instead of spending them on flashy TV commercials during prime time (bar a few who do not product but brand advertisement to help their distributors gain street cred), they pay their distributors for doing the sales & marketing promotions.

After years of rejecting MLM schemes, I realize I have now spent a full year as a dormant distributor for Forever Living Products whose hero product is Aloevera Juice and whose Lean & Clean Diet Programme has helped me lose 4kg and now more than 5 %points of body fat.

I thought I would NEVER promote their goods until I could see the benefits they promote myself.

But now that I have achieved the desired results of losing weight and body fat, I am finding it hard to even interest other people in the products because many think it is my strenuous training in martial arts and my pesco-veggie eating habits that has done the trick. (^^)

It just so happens that I started training again just as I started consuming Forever Living's superb Aloevera Juice and other products. And maybe without one, I could not have achieved what I have with the other. But since most people my age (45) and older shy away from the kind of training I do, they also think my consumption of Aloevera Juice will not do them much good.

It is kind of ironic, but maybe people would have been more encouraged if I was a sickly figure before I started taking the stuff and am now a reborn health fanatic or something...

And just last week, I have endorsed another MLM brand - Organo Gold.

It seems to be the fastest growing MLM brand at the moment, with its hero product being coffee! And the brand just launched in Japan less than a week ago.

I am a huge coffee fan whose personal mug has traveled with me to China and other parts of Asia just so that I can steadily feed my addiction to java.

Normally, I buy my coffee in bean form and use a very analogue mill to grind the beans for each cup. It is an important ritual in my household and one that my 6-year old twins participate in every now and then.

So, to be honest, all the Holiday Blend and other gift saches of coffee I get as gifts, be it from Starbucks or Nestle, have been doing nothing but collecting dust on my pantry shelves or have been used as occasional food dye for worn out white T shirts that need a change of colour to remain sociably acceptable.

I myself know that I will never make a full conversion to sache coffee - be it something that I get paid to consume or not - but having some good profitable java with me on the road gives me a level of comfort.

Besides, Organo Gold Coffee, Hot Chocolate, and Green Tea have Lingzhi (Ganoderma) in them. Though I have no heart ailments, my mother had surgery on her nearly blocked coronary artery earlier this year, and while she is on a steady diet of Aloevera Juice, EPA/DHA, and hyaluronic acid, I am hoping that perhaps Lingzhi will help her get off her meds. My sponsor tells me three of her distributors - two elderly and one 31-year old - have come off their heart meds since they have started consuming Organo Gold Coffee, so that is motivation enough for me to encourage my mother to try the products.

When I started doing research on MLM companies, it was interesting to learn that Tupperware, Avon, and a myriad of other familiar names pop up. I guess it is no surprise as this form of distribution has been around for more than half a century now. And that has reinforced my belief that choosing a distributor to buy from or to be sponsored by is not at all different from choosing a web store or catalogue to purchase from.


Post-Quake New Values: the Value of Safety and Rethinking Real Wealth

"Our values have changed significantly since the Great East Japan Earthquake (of 11 March 2011)" is a common phrase voiced in Japan today.

After witnessing and experiencing the horror of lives and towns being swept away, many turned to the immaterial treasures in life. Traditional marriages and weddings increased. The word of the year in 2011 was "bond" or "connectedness," kizuna.

The nuclear power plant accident put focus on securing safe and reliable food. It brought to light many things that we previously took for granted living in an industrialized country,

While Tokyo and its vicinity shrunk back in shock and fear after the disasters, especially since its residents realized how disaster un-ready the capitol is; further west in Japan, the region that had risen from the devastation of the Great Hanshin Earthquake (of 17 Jan 1995) rallied to keep the economy going and to support compatriots in many direct and indirect ways. The vibes and energy around Osaka and Kobe fueled by determination to get the country back on its feet were a stark contrast to the post-trauma glumness that shrouded Tokyo.

We discovered that friends in need are friends indeed with all the generous support we got from overseas. Comments like "now it is our turn to help Japan" that came from neighboring developing countries brought hot tears to our eyes in gratitude. At the same time, both at national and personal levels, many of us learned who our "fake" friends are as well.

It is now more than a year since the devastation, and we still have some displaced families living in makeshift housing as testimony that while the hype may be over in the eyes of many, the scars will take much longer to heal.

I may not be the most typical Japanese consumer, but I find myself caught between self-preservation (which includes my immediate family) decisions or simply put, choosing more selfish options vs. what may be the more virtuous decision when I receive fliers promoting agricultural goods grown in the affected areas.

I have restarted my subscription to an organic and safe foods supplier whose straw mushrooms cost more than three times what I pay in the local supermarket because they guarantee that the radiation levels of their goods is less than half of what the government standards say is safe. They have full disclosure on where the goods were grown, and some items, like kiwi fruit, come from overseas growers.

My former classmates and I have engaged in discussions on Facebook about the price of safe food by sharing posts like: vegetables grown locally is 100 yen, those coming from (supposedly unaffected) Hokkaido is 300 yen, and those coming from Tohoku is 80 yen... I caved in when I thought of my kids and paid 300 yen because we are also sort of in the "hot zone."

We are honest to admit that we would love to support Tohoku, but when it comes to what we feed our children, we find it hard to take any risks if we can afford avoiding them. A different classmate who has no children said, "households like ours will take the Tohoku stuff, don't worry!"

I have been following The Tohoku Cotton Project, a project in Tohoku where they have begun to grow cotton in what was once fields growing rice and other produce because cotton is more resilient to the harsh salination the soil has been subjected to by the tsunami. The first round of crops has been blended with organic cotton from Uganda and supima cotton from the US and have been made into jeans, towels, polo shirts, and stoles. As if the earthquake was not enough, some of the crops were destroyed last September in a typhoon that flooded the fields, but they were able to yield approximately 80kg from the first "test." (As a jeans fanatic, of course I had to get both the men's straight leg and the women's tapered leg jeans!)

It is a shame the English site does not have adequate content. The comments by the growers on how the project is helping them is worthy of translation. I am sure they decided not to spend too much money on translation, so I have volunteered my services to them last week. Let's see if they take it up!

Getting back to thinking about the things we now value more than before - there seems to be a bit of an aversion from the lavish consumption of the past. Maybe it is just my friends, but there is a rising interest in purging their excessive belongings to keep only what is worth keeping.

I, too, am guilty of being surrounded by many things, and I recall thinking that even if I were to lose everything overnight, the only real precious "things" in my life are my family. Of course, as a lover of beautiful things, I will miss all the wonderfully elaborate things I have collected over the years, but as Lady Amanda Harlech commented in an interview with VOGUE NIPPON, "all pret a porter clothes are things of the past the moment they are born. The moment of their birth means death and they become a part of a vicious cycle to keep on creating new things." And then she says haute couture is different. Because each and every stitch is made with the utmost care and love by the artisans and craftsmen, so they are designed to endure the times and to be loved for generations. So, by that token, many of my beautiful possessions would have been declared long dead by the time I first slipped my body in to them. And perhaps, the same can be said about the branded jewelry that I don that are not bespoke.

There was a woman I once saw on a train in Tokyo, who was dressed in a simple turtleneck sweater and long skirt with heeled shoes. Nothing shouted the brand name or logo, but she stood out in the crowd because everything she was wearing was obviously well-crafted. Every minute detail from fibre to drape to cut shouted quality. And for the longest time, I remember trying to understand what made such a difference.

As I jump on the bandwagon of danshari or purging of my belongings, I have begun to understand what made her different.

I know so many people who say,
"I have beautiful Baccarat tumblers but in daily life, I only use Ikea glasses," or
"I spend thousands of dollars at branded boutiques, but my daily work clothes are from UNIQLO."
And I realize that I can be guilty of the same, treating the expensive things as being "too precious" and not enjoying them daily.

How many times have I taken a huge leap to purchase that expensive piece of garment/shoes/bag only to hide them in my closet and let the world see me in my cheaper, less precious items? How many times have I been crushed to see that the garment I bought at full price ended up being marked down before I even actually wore it?

I realized that by hiding away my "Sunday Best" or accumulating a huge inventory of "Sunday Bests," that never come out of my closet, I project an image of being ordinary and donning items of lesser quality and/or lower prices.

Now that I am purging my wardrobe of long-forgotten, less than favourite items, my daily wardrobe has become more "me" and more exciting. I have lesser items to choose from, but every item is a favourite and precious, so it is more fun and more exciting to dress myself daily, right down to the white T shirt and jeans because now that T shirt is either a Helmut Lang, a Kamishima Chinami Yellow, a Yohji Yamamoto, a Comme des Garcons, or an Isabelle Marant, or an Acne. My UNIQLOs have become night shirts and workout shirts.

I now also have a renewed appreciation for bespoke and one-off items, some of which I make myself. Choosing the yarns or fabrics as well as the trims is the fun part. And the labour is one of love.

I now follow artisans like Joel Storella who make one-off bespoke bags.

And as I have vowed before, I am now more determined than ever before to ensure that my son and daughter learn early on the joys of wearing perfectly tailored shirts as opposed to trying to fit into one that fits his/her budget.

Clothes and possessions should not define a person, but complement him/her.
Yves Saint Laurent said that clothes should complement a woman, not overshadow her character and beauty.

My friends and I spend more time talking about spending money on items made by craftsmen who preserve our cultural heritage and ways of life. The Tohoku Cotton Project is a nice one, but there are other regions in need of support like Wajima, where beautiful lacquer ware is produced or Nagata, once the heart of Japanese shoes manufacturing.

If the early mark downs this season that started with DM after DM of "secret sales" in early June is an indication, perhaps there is a rising number of consumers who are buying less volume and seeking out quality.

We continue to see less obvious fashion trends and less change between seasons so unless one is Anna Dello Russo and needs to be wearing the most iconic items at the beginning of the season, it is hard to need to buy things at full price at any given time. Of course, even the most militant purger or vigilant and shrewd saver may fall in love with an item that must be bought at whatever moment, but unless goods stir that kind of passion and lust in a person, they become harder to sell. And how often does one walk into a store to see no difference in the garments hung on the racks that say "New" or "Just In" vs. those marked down?

I am sure it would be easier if everyone can be like my friend who never marks anything down, ever. (Instead, she allows her best clients to put aside whatever they fancy when they fancy for as long as they like because they never betray her. I am sure she does her buying knowing who among them would buy what item every season.)

But even Rei Kawakubo of Comme de Garcons needs to burn leftover inventory at the end of the season so we still have an abundance of goods that need to be marked down earlier and earlier each season.

Many retailers have been saying now for a few seasons that if there happens to be an IT item, it is either that or nothing. Once upon a time, if the item in question was not available, retailers were able to sell things that was close enough to that item. That is no longer the case in Japan.

Isabel Marant is very conscious of this fact. She repeatedly says in interviews that when she creates a collection, she is asking herself how she could create items that people who don't need any more new clothes would want. As her eponymous brand and ETOILE are both growing at alarming speed, she has her finger on the pulse.

My six-year old daughter has long been choosing her own clothes when we shop. And she loves to shop. "It feels so good to buy new clothes!" she recently declared.

But she is also a very clear on what she wants and if she walks into a store and cannot find anything she wants, she is happy to walk straight out empty handed. This distresses me when she has outgrown all her shoes and desperately needs a new one, but her attitude is very much the mood I see in many consumers.

And what I have learned from her is that if there is a dress one likes, then one should wear it daily.Never mind that it is decorated with tulle lace and ribbon flowers. At the rate she is growing, if I had only allowed her to wear it on special occasions, she would not have gotten much wear out of it. But because she insisted on making it part or her daily wardrobe, she got a LOT of wear out of it. I guess in that sense, she is closer to Anna Dello Russo, who sees no distinction between evening gowns and day dresses, than I am.

It makes me think that true wealth is being surrounded by "Sunday Bests" every day to enrich one's life for oneself, not to show off or to entertain.


When Your Biggest Customers Announce They Will Compete With You

I have started a blog predominantly focusing on links to articles and press releases around the post, courier, and express industries called CEP Links on WordPress.com.


And in the last couple of days, I have had the privilege of going through a couple of very interesting announcements by Japan's No.1 home delivery courier service company (with 42.2% market share), Yamato, and their largest customers, Rakuten and Seven Eleven.

Rakuten is Japan's No.1 online shopping portal with an annual turnover of US$4,7 billion. They do some 400,000 transactions a day for their merchants and own a baseball team as well as many portals around the globe including Buy.com and PriceMinister.com.

They have had global aspirations and for some time now, their internal meetings have all been conducted in English so that headquarters staff may develop a more international mind set. (There are jokes that say that the most commonly used expression at Rakuten meetings is "this part is really important so I am going to use Japanese.")

At one point a couple of years ago, I met with a Rakuten Director who oversees their logistics and he indicated that only about 2% of their total transactions generate overseas shipments, but they plan to change that significantly with their expanding global footprint.

But back home in Japan, and in its capital, Tokyo, they announced that they will start doing their own home delivery of fresh produce purchased on Rakuten Mart, the online supermarket.

Instead of teaming up with Yamato, who currently handles the shipments, they have opted to team up with local delivery agents who will wear Rakuten uniforms and caps, and may even repaint their vans.

Yamato Transport Logo

Rakuten plans to have this delivery network handle shipments from their Rakuten Ichiba auction and shopping portal as well. They believe that since consumers who purchase groceries are likely to be home on the date and time they specify for these deliveries, there will be lower incidents of failed delivery attempts, a huge drain on profitability for delivery companies.

In their announcement, Rakuten indicates that increased brand exposure is a key aim for them, which explains why the beige and green Yamato trucks with the black cats on them won't do.

Seven Eleven Japan is Japan's No.1 Convenience Store Chain with a total of 14,196 stores and an annual turnover of 3 trillion yen or 37.7 billion US dollars. 
from Seven Eleven Japan's web site, revenue trends

They have been offering home delivery of lunch boxes etc. at a delivery charge of 200 yen for purchases over 1,000 yen. Starting from 7 May 2012, they have changed that to free delivery for purchases over 500 yen. And for purchases under 500 yen, a 120 yen delivery charge applies. 
The 200 yen deliveries were done by Yamato. The new service has their shop managers or staff delivering the goods. 

The aim here is for the shop staff to develop a more sticky relationship with the customers so that they may be able to make recommendations and cross-sell other goods. 

This aim reminds me of the old days when the local liquor store owner came around every week on a designated day to ask if there was anything we needed. He would deliver anything from kerosene for the heaters to rice, cases of beer and/or juices, bread, sugar, and salt. 

Today, the only people who come to my home regularly are the local book store owner's son, who delivers the magazines I "subscribe to" through his shop; the dry cleaner who comes to collect my dirty washing and delivers them the following week; and the consumers' co-op home delivery service van with whom I place orders on or before 13:00 of every Monday to receive delivery just after noon on Saturdays. 

Because in Japan, most of us use public transport during our commutes and for shopping, it is not uncommon for supermarkets and bookstores to offer home delivery. I was pleasantly surprised once when I purchased about 3kg of books with Kinokuniya Book Store in Tokyo because they offered to deliver the books to my home for free without my even inquiring about them. When I took my mother to look at flamenco costumes at Chacott, they were more than happy to send her newly acquired dress, tights, and accessories to her home while shipping the cosmetics and bag to my home - two different locations, and for free of charge, too. 

Come to think of it, it is a wonderful way of capturing my residential details in their system. All they have to do is have me fill out a form allowing me to opt out of DMs with a disclaimer about their personal information policy. It may cost them from US$3.00 to US$900 a piece, but they have my details and a quality address. 

This reminds me now of how a Marketing Director at UPS once bragged that they have an extensive database of who is shipping what to where how frequently and that information is worth more than the value of the goods they actually carry.

Perhaps that is something that Seven Eleven really wants to get a hold of. Unlike Rakuten, where their system will capture the personal details of a customer, retailers selling FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) have traditionally struggled to better understand and communicate with their clientele through profiling. 

One of the biggest sellers of music and video rental giant Tsutaya and parent company CCC is that through the T card, they have shopping profiles on more than 2/3 of Japan's adult population and they can help willing buyers of that information with targeted in-store marketing as well as online. And Tsutaya owns rival convenience store chain Family Mart.

Rakuten's move is actually in line with off line marketing attempts in recent years by online firms.  Top fashion portal ZOZO TOWN published a magazine and runs TV ads. TV Shopping giant Jupiter has started opening pop up stores in Department Stores. 

Rakuten no doubt gets much exposure with their baseball team, but they are wanting more. 

Yamato has not been resting on its laurels but have been aggressively pursuing ways to future proof itself as they realize that their dominance in the domestic market that enables them to operate with no debts cannot last forever. And their 4 June announcement to launch next day courier services to key Asian destinations is a tip of the iceberg. 

Still, it is probably a very bitter pill to swallow to one day be told that your biggest customers are competing with you. 

Maybe this is a reaction to the concentration of delivery services in Japan, and one day not too far in the future, Rakuten will sell their logistics services arm to someone like UPS as part of a re-concentration movement. 

Or, maybe this is the new reality where logistics services capacity will be sold like cloud computing services by the very people who look after their own distribution to ensure control over quality and costs. 

Maybe people like Rakuten and Seven Eleven will eventually start using "hybrid" services whereby they use the likes of Posts and Yamato for the last mile again, taking advantage of their ability to consolidate shipments and negotiate large discounts.


The Illusion of Homogeneity in Japan and Its Cruelty

When I was attending primary school in a white neighborhood in the United States as the first ever Asian child to attend that school, there were times when I felt that the other kids were making fun of my ethnicity. I am sure it was no illusion. And there were many times when I cried to myself about how unfair that was because I had not CHOSEN to be born Asian or Japanese... that is what I am.

It may have been why I yearned to return to Japan as early as age 11.

As a Japanese national, I wanted to graduate from a Japanese university, and decided that it was best for me to attend a Japanese secondary school to go to a Japanese high school so that I could attend a Japanese university.

I told my parents this and it was decided that I would attend boarding school and return to Japan ahead of the rest of my family.

A few weeks later, my father was given orders by his employer to return to Japan. So the entire family was returning and I did not need to go away to boarding school.

What was tough and cruel for me was that even though I hail from Japanese parents, was born in Osaka, and speak Japanese as my mother tongue, the kids in my secondary school saw me as "an alien." I was "gaijin" or outsider, and they taunted me for everything they could possibly find that was different from the comfortable, near uniform existence that they led for the first 11 years of their lives.

My mother allowed me to get my ears pierced for my seventh birthday, which was my first birthday since moving to the US in 1974. That labelled me as a juvenile delinquent in Japan.

My mother has naturally chestnut hair, which is lighter than the "black like a wet crow" colour that the Japanese cherish, and on top of that, her hair is naturally wavy. I inherited those instead of my father's slick black and straight hair. That added to my being different and delinquent.

I was not the tallest girl in my class, but was among the three tallest, which made me stand out because I was taller than most of the boys.

Lastly, of course, I spoke English fluently while my classmates were just about to embark on their English education journey, starting with the ABCs. Even the teacher hated me for that.

So I toughened up in the way only kids who have a rough time fitting in do.

It helped that I was athletic, got top grades, and was articulate when I spoke.

I had no illusions of being the most popular girl in school, but I was known. Everyone knew about the "cocky foreigner with the red hair."

Today, when I make the rare effort to appear at class reunions, I am still subject to curious gazes and comments about my unusual career and family.

I despise people who tell me how "lucky" I am that I speak fluent English and have "beautiful half children." That is what they call half-blooded children, "Halves."

My twins are doubly "cursed" - they are twins AND halves.

Whenever we took them to a group medical check up hosted by the local government or the zoo, people pointed and spoke of them as if I was deaf. Said they,
"Oh, look! Half twins!"
"Oh, they look like dolls! Half twins!!! Look!"

Some even had the audacity to take photos of them with their mobile phones or cameras without asking me or the twins' father.

Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore once said that it is easy to defeat a single Japanese, but impossible to beat Japanese when we come in groups.

The flip side of that is that if one does NOT fit into a clearly defined group in Japan, one is an outsider and those on the outside of "the circle (of trust, if you will)," cannot be trusted.

Have no illusions - once on the outside, one is always an outsider.

Sometimes the distinctions made are subtle, but other times, it is quite obvious and feels even obnoxious.

With the aging population and declining birth rate, Japan may have to rethink its tight immigration policies. But no law will be able to change the social mindset about outsiders and insiders. It is too ingrained in our DNA.

It is one of the reasons why I pain over the future treatment my twins will receive as they grow up...

And then again, of course, they will be tougher than the other kids who have never been subject to such treatment. Their mother is a fine example of that.


Konpu Gacha in Social Gaming - A New Drug or a New Face on an Old Villain?

GREE and Mobage, operated by GREE and DeNA are Japan's leaders in mobile social gaming.

DeNA's turnover for FY2011, period ending March 2012, was JPY145,729 million yen or US$1.83 billion.

GREE's FY2011 turnover was JPY64,178 million yen or US$807 million.

And in this day and age of sluggish or negative growth in the economy itself, they are enjoying double-digit year-on-year growth.

Their secret?

Game add-ons. One former employee of a social gaming giant told me five years ago that their daily take on add-ons, averaging US$2.00 to US$3.50 a piece, can be as high as US$2 million in revenue IN A DAY when.

They call it "small change business" whereby consumers don't realize they are making large purchases at all, and thus, become immune to the spending.

And in recent years, one of their biggest cash cows was "gacha" and "konpu gacha" (complete gacha) - a card collection system built into games whereby players can pay to buy cards that will help them get to the next stage of the game. The catch is that (a) players cannot pick the cards they are buying as it is a blind, lucky-draw type sale (i.e. one will definitely get a card but there is no guarantee on what card they will get), and (b) some cards have lower odds than others to appear, and (c) even rarer or more valuable cards are only attainable once the player has a complete set of cards (for konpu gacha).

The market rate per card is JPY300, or US$3.77, but there have been reports that minors have racked up bills in the thousands of dollars while grownups have been set back in the TENS of thousands of dollars. And this is PER MONTH, not year!

On May 7, the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) announced that they will investigate the legality of such games and gaming companies stocks lost 20% to 25% of their value by the close of trade.

The companies quickly announced self-regulation matters and according to the Japan Times, one CEO even publicly announced that he was not aware of the 1977 law the CAA was referring to upon questioning the legality of the konpu gacha system.

The said law was introduced in response to card collecting children spending extravagantly to complete their collections - be it baseball cards or super hero cards.

The buzz word in the media related to this subject since has been "speculative spirit" - which is what the gaming system appeals to and what the law the CAA is trying to apply specifies as the poison that traps consumers.

Some PR specialists have noted that perhaps "speculative spirit" will become one of the buzz words of the year.

What is interesting about the application or the attempt to apply this law to social gaming is how the word "speculative spirit" has been applied to prohibit gambling and how it is the focal key in the ongoing debate about whether pachinko palours are legal or not.

Pachinko is a "pin ball game" operated in pachinko parlours. Players buy a box of balls and play to win more balls. As it is technically illegal to win cash, as that violates our laws that prohibit gambling, players are able to exchange their balls upon leaving the parlours for prizes.

There is a legal cap on the unit price of the top prize, but there is no legal cap on how many prizes one can take away.

When I was a sales rep for the now infamous Olympus Optical Co., Ltd. in the camera division, my first full time job after university more than 20 years ago, my claim to fame was that I secured an account that purchased the entry-level camera, priced at under JPY10,000, or the legal prize cap at the time, as a top prize for the pachinko parlours.

Many of my esteemed colleagues initially taunted me by saying,
"We thought you were someone who walked only under the sun. We now see that you move in the shadows, too"
But as I always say about sales people - history is made by the victors = those who sell the most - once the first order of 2,000 units came in, they decided to wait and see.

Then, when another 2,000 units went out the door the following week, and the week after as well for the remainder of the year, I was recognized with the equivalent of the "Sales Rep of the Year" Award. I was only the third "million-dollar player" in the Tokyo Office, or a sales rep that sells more than $1 million per half year, at the time, and the only one who did not have a wholesale or electronics shop chain as an account. That _was_ a breakthrough in lead generation and account management at the time.

As much as I was thrilled that my hard work paid off, it was almost scary to see the pace with which the cameras were taken up.

Even on weekdays, one often sees a queue outside of the pachinko parlous before they open their doors for the day. I used to have classmates who would spend their entire days in pachinko parlous when I was in Uni.

I have personally never set foot in such a place (despite selling to them!), but whenever I read about children left in cars to suffocate in pachinko parlour parking lots thanks to their mothers or parents being addicted to the game, or neglected children getting hit by cars outside of such parlous, my heart sinks.

A while back, I believe there were articles written about how Online gaming has become recognized as an addiction and how marriages and lives have been destroyed by gaming addicts who could no longer function socially thanks to their addiction and loss of touch with time, social commitments, and family.

Perhaps gambling is only preceded by prostitution as an old vice. Or are they contemporaries?

And konpu gacha definitely looks like a new exterior for an old villain.

GREE and DeNA as actively pursuing their overseas business expansion plans. You may be hooked before you know it, too. Watch out!


When Receiving Vouchers Become Offensive

I was actually offended this morning when I got an email from one of my favourite online craft stores announcing "Here is a 100 yen voucher from XXX" in the subject line.

100 yen... USD1.26... EUR1...RMB8...

It just isn't worth my time.

It costs me anywhere from 550 yen to 660 yen just to open the door and slide into a cab and travel 1.2km!

Sure, there are a number of things one can do with a ball of yarn, but yesterday, I bought 10 balls of imported Italian linen (92%) and polyester (8%) yarn for @148 yen per ball at DISCOUNT.

What in the bloody world am I supposed to do with 100 yen???

And to think just last week, they sent me 1,000yen!!!

Maybe it was a typographical error, but seeing the subject was enough for me NOT to click on the email to open it. But then again, I felt like opening the email and clicking on the link inside just in case they were paying someone per click... wicked me.

One of the many classic lines from "The Godfather" that all marketers love is:
"I made him an offer he couldn't resist."
But good heavens, isn't that like 101 in marketing? Sending out offers that is worth someone's time to consider?

In the brick & mortar world, consumers drive miles to go to a petrol station that offers a few yen or cents cheaper per liter petrol, when in fact, they may be consuming whatever they save vs. the local petrol station on the extra travel.

I witness many full time homemakers queuing up at the super market when items are advertised to be "the lowest price this year." With some items, I often wonder if they actually need those items that are marked down or if the sense of buying something at a bargain drives them to spend.

And thus, online purchasing behavior is probably not so different.

Hence, such "gathering" sites as NetPrice, that enable consumers to get items at lower prices if they can call on friends to buy the same item as well and enjoy benefit of scale discounts, thrive and flourish. (NetPrice existed about 8 years before Groupon and Gilt were launched... the only difference with their system is that NetPrice does not offer time limits and they do not utilize Twitter and SNS as much or at least did not until recently.)

Flash sales are here to stay, and compare and shop sites online like kakaku.com are not going away, either.

Another constant is that consumers seek "convenience" and some will even pay for it.

I am beginning to think these days that saying "consumers are increasingly time poor" is a myth.
Perhaps consumers of yesteryears had less time than we did because it took them longer to find directions and information without the Internet and mobile connectivity devices we so rely on these days.

Yes, there is now more competition for our time across different media, and our children need to do so many things now that require our help! But we are not having more children than the previous generation so even if after school or extra-curricular activity per child increased, the fact that we have less children probably make up for it.

So I firmly believe it is not so much the time, but how much something contributes to making my life easier or more convenient determines whether that something is worth my time or not.

Yes, saving money is important, but that benefit must not be outweighed by the downside of the deal (extra click? driving that extra distance? and so on). And of course, the deal has to be relevant to me for me to even consider it.

I wish somewhere, someone would finally understand and make changes to whatever database they have captured me on to reflect the fact that I am not a man looking for cheap Viagra and stop sending me emails about it. I also wish people would understand that I do NOT need English lessons. Vouchers for either are not attractive to me and I abhor the time it takes for me to delete such emails.


On the Spot or Well in Advance - Different Approaches to Decision Making by Leaders in the East vs West

"Let's have a closed session of just CEOs so that we can deliberate (on politically sensitive topics without those who may have their own vested interests in the outcomes) candidly and take decisions that is mutually beneficial" invited one western CEO to a room full of his colleagues - half of them Asian and the other half western.

Much to his disappointment, many of the Asian CEOs opted to have their aides present at the said "closed session" while he locked his men from the trenches out of the room.

This may not just be an East vs West thing, dependent on the decision-making style of the individual leader, but in general, since nemawashi is now a common word in some political circles outside of Japan, but originally a Japanese word, many Asian leaders seem to prefer to know at least the questions well in advance before being asked them, especially when they are deliberating in a foreign language even if they have simultaneous interpreters with them.

In my personal experience in international negotiations, more western leaders have their aides saying,
"I am not quite sure what my CEO's final decision will be, but given his comments to date..."
while more of their Asian counterparts seem to take time for pre-negotiation briefing sessions with their aides so that much "below the radar" negotiations and ground work can be carried out by those in the trenches leading up to a negotiation session.

In the opening example, I observed that the Asian companies all formed their official positions before they got to the meeting.

In particular, I observed my Japanese colleagues create a very detailed "position and decision" paper that was thoroughly reviewed by not just the CEO, but the entire team working on the project. This way, no matter who represented that organization, everyone belonging to it said exactly the same things, using the exact same words. It is a typical and traditional Japanese approach to negotiation and decision-making. And this way, when that decision is officialized, it cascades down the corporate ladder quickly, minimizing resistance from the ranks as well as the time it takes for that decision and its subsequent actions to be understood and executed.

However, some western businessmen feel that such an approach negates the significance of the CEOs meeting together; that it makes the occasion more ceremonial than actual negotiation and deliberation. They also say that the longer lead time required for such decisions to be made disable the leader from making decisions that respond to the rapidly changing market in a timely manner.

There is always two sides to a coin, and I am not saying that one way is better than the other or that one way is right and the other is wrong. They are not mutually exclusive - they just require anyone that may be caught in the middle of these differences to take note, be aware, and adjust their expectations and actions accordingly.

Who can say that the Asian CEO has less power than his western part because he does not seemingly make decisions on the spot? Or that he lacks the decision-making skills? The different styles means that the CEO makes the decision in a different time-space sequence to his western counterpart. That is all.

I also observe that by knowing the CEO's position in advance, his subordinates seldom voice their personal views - especially if it somehow goes against his superior's position or is not exactly the same - in public. They sing from the "party song book" and present a unified front when wearing their public personas.

If one wants to get past that and find out what a particular individual in the trenches really thinks about that topic, that is when the after hours drinks or lunch or coffee break comes in handy.

We all know that the real negotiation happens when no one is taking minutes.

And if one wants to find a way around the official position, or negotiate priorities among multiple action points, then it is really at this time, off the record, and with the actual people that do the work that the negotiation should happen.

So do not despair and get frustrated over the different decision-making styles. Focus on the goal - the outcome, the actual actions you want done - and make sure you know who to talk to and when.


The Rise of the Perpetually Connected Generation

Perhaps it is time we stopped segregating off line and online retail.

And maybe SNS's are not so different from people just physically "hanging out" together?

I just skimmed through the November 2011 issue of the Brand Data Bank's publication on the latest consumption trends in Japan analyzed by
- Generation
- Gender; and
- Brands

Brand Data Bank (https://www.branddatabank.com) conducts online surveys every two years to follow the consumption trends on a wide range of product categories across generations and gender such as:
- automobiles
- watches
- clothes
- bags
- bottled water
- beers
- ice cream
- shampoos
- celebrities
- gaming software
- mobile phones
- overseas travel
- shopping facilities

This time around, they got 30,941 respondents aged 15 to 69 to participate in their survey. The average age of the respondents was 41.5yrs old.

What jumped out for me was that the under 30 generation is perpetually connected - both on and off line.

To them, being connected via SNS, chats, online games, and just physically hanging out is all the same thing. They do not make a distinction between the physical and virtual. They know that they have real people in their inner SNS circles, and their friendships cover both on and offline networks.

They also make little distinction between TV and the Internet... no doubt they are part of the global generation that has pushed YouTube to be the No.2 search engine after Google in this world, though Google is still behind Yahoo in Japan.

News and documentary programmes on TV don't even start to register among the top choices for this generation. It is only after they hit 30 that they tune in on the small screen to news. For the younger generation, the news comes to them via the Internet and they use both mobile phones as frequently to access such information as they do PCs.

There seems to be a distinction between the 20-24yrs group and the 25-29 yrs group in that the former is a bit more outgoing and even sociable than the latter.

The latter preferred outdoor brands to own and wear, but stayed home in them.
The former goes out to physically meet their friends more often. However, they prefer to hang out at low price fast food joints like beef bowl chains and the Golden Arch.

For the F1 group, it is encouraging to see that they still love to shop.
And they utilize both off and online shopping depending on what is convenient.

It is no surprise that they don't shop at department stores - we knew that for years now.
They like LUMINE, PARCO, VIVRE, and SHIMAMURA as well as MUJI, Fran Fran, and Matsumoto Kiyoshi (drug store).

As a result, their favourite brands are Lowry's Farm, UNIQLO, and Earth Music and Ecology.
Every single one of these brands have very robust e-commerce and mobile commerce divisions.

Speaking of brands, what was also interesting about the latest survey results was that UNIQLO's fans DOUBLED in four years. 

And the other thing is that when analyzed by income, even high net worth individuals listed UNIQLO as one of their favourite brands to actually shop at. 

It leads one to wonder if UNIQLO could have succeeded as it has were it not a Japanese brand?

Japan has historically been renowned as having the smallest income gap across the population among the OECD countries. We Japanese consider ourselves as being a nation of 130 million middle class people.

With such a sense of "uniformity," a retailer like UNIQLO seems to have very strong appeal across generations and income groups.

Both men and women under 30 said "If I like the items, I do not worry too much about which brand it is."
This is a big shock for branded businesses, no doubt, as Japan until recently contributed up to 50% of overseas sales for some brands.

Of course, the under 30 generation has lower income and cannot afford to spend as lavishly on branded goods. And the current consumption of branded goods in Japan is by the over 30s group and visiting Chinese and Russian wealthy visitors who see shopping in Japan as a status symbol and a reliable way of making sure one's purchase is authentic and not of fakes.

In the 2009 survey, 17.9% of women aged 25 - 29 said they own a Coach bag, and 14.9% said they own a Louis Vuitton.
In 2011, Coach jumped up to 19.4% and Louis Vuitton to 16.1%... maybe all is not lost?

However, Burberry and Agnis.b fell off the top 15 list and Christian Dior slipped from 10th to 14th, giving rise to Chloe (first time to make the top 15) and Cath Kidston.

Cath Kidston is increasing their retail presence here in Japan both through wholesale and retail. The first Cath Kidston Cafe in Shonan still has women and couples queuing up to get in.

Marc Jacobs not only made the top 15 for the first time but came in at 10th place, above Le Sportsac, MIU MIU, Chloe, Christian Dior and Cath Kidston.

PRADA did not even make the top 15, and it is quite telling to read about comments on how consumers prefer to shop comprehensively at select shops rather than single branded shops. Especially the under 35 generation grew up with select shops increasing their influence and foot print.

In recent years, they have become quite aggressive in the e-commerce and mobile commerce space as well, so no doubt that is having an impact, too.

The analyses on the older generation (Baby Boomers) was interesting, too, but I will save that for another day.