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‘Super Yen’ Doesn’t Mean Super Deals For Japanese Consumers

May 5, 1995

TOKYO (AP) _ In theory, the soaring Japanese yen should be a boon to buyers of foreign goods. In real life, though, it hasn’t made too much of a difference.

Since the start of the year, the yen has gained nearly 20 percent in value against the dollar and other dollar-pegged currencies. But most ordinary Japanese say their savings on foreign products haven’t kept pace with their currency’s climb.

``The high yen is hardly reflected at all in our pocketbooks,″ said Norio Hamaguchi as he waited to get his tank filled at a neighborhood gas station.

The price of gasoline is one example. Japanese motorists pay around 102 yen per liter, or $4.62 per gallon, for gasoline _ about 6 percent less than at the start of the year, but hardly reflective of the strong yen.

Other products also remain expensive in Japan. Wrangler 700 jeans go for 9,800 yen, or $117. At the Seibu department store, a simple short-sleeved shirt by Ralph Lauren will also set you back 9,800 yen, or $117. Italian shoes start at 18,000 yen, or $215.

``Imported clothing costs just as much as before,″ said Yukimi Masui, a college lecturer who, like many Japanese, shops for clothes while she’s traveling abroad.

For the Japanese, the continued high prices of many imports means no relief from the world’s highest cost of living.

Much of this is blamed on government regulations. One example is the price of bread, which cost 180 yen, or about $1.50, for six slices a few years ago. Today the same half loaf still costs 180 yen, but in dollar terms the price has gone up to $2.15.

Since Japan imports most of its wheat from the United States and elsewhere, many expected the price to fall. But the government controls wheat imports and so far, it has preferred to pass on much of the profits from the dollar’s plunge to domestic farmers instead of consumers.

Japan’s convoluted distribution system is also blamed for higher import costs. Under the system, products often have to pass through two or three layers of middlemen, with everyone tacking on some profit.

Both foreign and Japanese companies share some of the blame for keeping costs high.

Japanese industry cartels sometimes team up behind the scenes to prop up prices. And foreign companies often prefer to grab quick profits when the yen goes up instead of passing along their savings and aiming for long-term market share.

In dollar terms, Japanese salaries are relatively high. A fast-food worker in Tokyo makes about 800 yen ($9.50) an hour. A starting autoworker at Toyota earns 3.5 million yen ($42,000) a year.

But even with pay scales like that, it’s tough to keep up with Japan’s prices. A pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream sells for 700 yen, or $8.37. A 4.4-ounce serving of Camembert cheese costs 548 yen, or $6.53.

Some big-ticket items are less expensive now, but hardly cheap. The price of a Ford Explorer XLT is down 32 percent from three years ago in yen terms, keeping its price tag steady at around $42,000.

And retailers say that for some upscale imported goods, Japanese don’t respond well to bargain-basement prices, perhaps due to lingering snobbery from the status-conscious 1980s.

``If you make it too cheap, people start wondering what’s wrong,″ said shoe saleswoman Shinobu Muto. ``People have a fixed image in their minds about what the price in Japan should be.″

But in most cases, Japanese consumers are jumping at the chance to save.

Foreign brands of beer have racked up strong sales with a price of around 1.25 yen, or $1.50, per 12-ounce can, as compared with most Japanese domestic brews that sell for 200 yen, or $2.38.

Foreign discounters such as Toys R Us and Tower Records have been drawing crowds with bargain offers. At Tower, the top-selling compact disc _ Live’s ``Throwing Copper″ _ sells for 1,990 yen, or $23.75, well below the usual Japanese price of 2,500 yen, or $30.

Even if they feel short-changed, though, shoppers tend to be docile. There is almost no tradition of consumer activism in Japan.

``The way Japanese think, even if it’s a little high they just accept what they’re given without harboring any doubts,″ said Masayuki Shonai, a record store employee who lived in Sacramento, Calif., for two years.

``Americans would say, `Why is this so expensive?‴ he said. ``But we don’t have that kind of power.″

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