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Japan OKs Self-Service Gas Stations

March 31, 1998

TOKYO (AP) _ Pulling into a Japanese gas station is like driving back in time.

A half-dozen smiling attendants in crisp white uniforms shout ``Welcome!″ as they rush up to pump your gas. When you’re ready to hit the road again, they halt traffic for you, doffing their caps and bowing deeply.

After decades of claiming it was simply too dangerous for the average Japanese consumer to pump his or her own gas, however, the government has given the go-ahead for self-service stations.

With pump-your-own making its Japan debut on Wednesday, industry watchers see a potential bonanza for a whole scad of gas station-centered spinoffs, such as highway-side McDonald’s outlets and pit-stop style dry cleaners.

For the legions of Japanese consumers who have grown jaded to the myriad regulations that have long ruled this country’s economy, the prospect of a choice at the pump is a welcome _ but somewhat daunting _ concept.

``Self-service pumps are a little scary, but I’ll learn,″ Hiroko Nozawa, a 42-year-old housewife, said as a team of attendants scurried about her red Nissan sedan at a Tokyo gas station.

Japan’s restrictions at the gas pump highlight a glaring contradiction in this country’s economy _ while its auto and electronics makers can compete with the best, domestic industries are so used to being coddled that they have grown grossly inefficient.

But the realities of an eight-year economic slump have convinced policymakers these industries are too much of a burden, and that the time is ripe to cut red tape to spur creativity and competition in the marketplace.

Most of the attention has been focused on the so-called ``Big Bang″ deregulation of the finance sector that begins Wednesday. But, as the self-service debut demonstrates, the drive for deregulation could make its mark on some more basic aspects of life.

Japanese, for example, pay dearly for their gasoline.

A gallon costs about $2.80, more than twice the price in the United States. Much of the cost comes from taxes added into the gas price.

Self-service would mean cheaper gas because running the stations would require two attendents instead of eight that is the norm now. That could bring savings of as much as 32 cents per gallon.

Not surprisingly, Japan’s oil retailers expect the lower prices at self-service stations to be a big draw.

Cosmo Oil Co., Japan’s largest, plans to open 30 self-service stations this year.

It would open even more, but fire department regulations require each self-service station to spend about $155,000 on safety features, said Cosmo spokesman Hozumi Tokita.

Such lingering regulations may slow the growth of the self-service market but a wide range of companies _ not all of them gas retailers _ are ready to give it a try anyhow.

McDonalds Japan Inc. predicts self-service stations will soon line Japan’s highways, and hopes to have one of its fast-food stops at each and every one, said Seiki Minato, head of development at McDonalds.

The idea isn’t exactly original _ McDonalds already has 240 such outlets at gas stations in the United States.

Even so, tailoring the concept to Japan took some effort.

There is, for example, less room for frills. While the average U.S. self-service station occupies one acre, in densely populated Japan owners must make do with half that area.

Minato said one of his goals is to convince gas station owners that a brightly lighted restaurant could attract customers who might avoid a largely unmanned gas station.

The Japan subsidiary of Martinizing Cleaners, meanwhile, has already built up a beachhead of 56 outlets in this country and this month opened the first cleaning store in the world at a gas station.

Martinizing plans to build 20 more like it this year alone.

``The convenience is what will make this idea work,″ said Martinizing’s Hiroki Tanabe. ``Convenience is the wave of the future in Japan.″

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