JIN-264 -- Lucrative Leaves? Banaba Boom

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Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 264
Thursday, March 4, 2004

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Lucrative Leaves? Banaba Boom

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In the MARCH issue of J@PAN INC magazine:

Is Kohei Minato for real? For 30 years, the maverick inventor has
been toiling away on his masterpiece: a magnetic machine that produces
more power than it uses. Now the orders are rolling in and investors are
salivating. We visit his backstreet Shinjuku laboratory to find out why.

Since 1997, Tokyo Designer's Week (TDW) has been marrying commerce
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and top-shelf corporate sponsors. As the organizers gear up for their
2004 festival, Roland Kelts speaks with participants both homegrown and
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>>On the heels of the Oscars, Richard Donovan heads to the Nagoya and
Tokyo offices of 100MeterFilms -- a joint venture of entertainment
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>> Is TOKYO REAL ESTATE undergoing a REVIVAL? -- Or are massive
developments in the center of the city dragging down the value
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>> KDDI and DOCOMO show you the latest in cellphone shopping.
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@@ VIEWPOINT: Lucrative Leaves? Banaba Boom

Banaba. You heard it here first, so just remember that when you're
filling up your next pot of the stuff.

Yesterday we were invited, rather out of the blue, to an interesting-
sounding press conference. A biotechnology company nobody has ever
heard of -- Use Tecno -- was about to announce a startling advance in
the field of diabetes treatment.

Now, let's not forget what big news diabetes is at the moment: huge
swathes of Americans are horribly obese, and the Brits and Europeans
seem to be heading in the same direction. The Japanese too, it seems,
are getting a bit pudgy around the edges, especially those of the
junk-food addled younger generation.

Type II diabetes, we were told, is the illness that often results from
this sort of social trend. At the bottom line, there is clearly a
lot of dough to be made from any product that claims to hold the
condition at bay.

Enter Use Tecno. This little company has been doing some digging around
in the jungles of the Philippines and has discovered some astonishing
tea that was brewed for them by a local witch doctor. Back in the labs
of Kyoto University, it appears that the Banaba tree's leaves do have
the effect of stimulating the body into reducing blood sugar levels
quite dramatically.

As well as the jungle tea story -- which was carefully laced with piles
of proof that this was definitely not a bit of "bio-piracy" -- the
company had another tantalizing tale to tell. Apparently the company's
president started life as a maker of sweets, and was actually in the
Philippine jungles looking for some nice tea to go with his cakes and

Now, of course, he is claiming that having filled Japanese bellies with
sugary stuff for most of his life, he is now doing his best to help
people get their early-stage diabetes under control.

This is all very well, and we were certainly not going to argue with
the very respectable university professors who explained that the Banaba
effects are genuine. What worries us is what happens next.

Japan has a serious problem with its health insurance budget -- a problem
so bad that journalists are on the verge of dubbing it a crisis. That,
and the natural tendency of many Japanese to believe what they read in
weekly magazines, has generated a freakish fanaticism for so-called
"functional foods."

Many of these, it turns out, have no real medical value, and the
government has begun to demand stringent checks on the claims being
made on packages.

But there is clearly a lot of money to be made from these functional
foods, and it seems clear that Use Tecno wants Banaba to become one.
The trouble is, the plant really is too good for that. This could
turn out to be as significant a discovery as aspirin, and it should
therefore be treated like a medical drug rather than a health food.

As Use Tecno knows perfectly well, however, turning a plant into an
officially recognized drug takes many years and millions of dollars.
By selling it as a functional food, the profits start rolling in
right away.

-- The Editors

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Written and edited by Roland Kelts and
Leo Lewis (editors@japaninc.com)


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