JIN-415 -- Spas, Supermarkets and Spam

J@pan Inc magazine presents:
The ‘JIN’ Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan www.japaninc.com

Issue No. 415 Wednesday May 23, 2007 TOKYO

Spas, Supermarkets and Spam

The other week a friend of mine invited me to accompany him on a
trip outside of Tokyo to Tamasakai to bathe in the onsen there.
Eager to escape the grime and see the green I agreed to go
without hesitation. Getting out of the train at Tamasakai
however, I soon realized that my visions of rolling hills and
unobscured views of the mountains were not to be realized.

Walking past the warehouses and half-built concrete apartment
blocks it became clear that Tamasakai, though definitely
suburban, is definitely not the countryside. Nonetheless, after a
15 minute walk we had arrived at a neo-ancient Japanese style
villa that boasted real hot springs within its doors. The baths
were situated out the back in a garden cut into a hillside, so as
to given the impression of being totally engulfed by nature - not
a tenement block in sight. Outside there were four pools filled
with peaceful looking Japanese soaking off a hard week’s work.
Inside there were some more interesting looking pools including
a green tinted mineral pool and jet spa. My greatest discovery
however was the ‘yomogi’ steam room. Yomogi is the fragrant
plant that originally came from Korea and has long been believed
to have healing properties. Breathing in the yomogi vapors took
me closer to a sensation of being in nature than any of the
onsens- I could almost see the toxins crawling out of my body.

After the onsen, feeling suitably reinvigorated, it seemed only
natural to meander across the road to Costco. Having only ever
been to the UK Costco, when I used to run an illicit school tuck
shop selling ice lollies and drinks in the summer, I had
forgotten the stores vast proportions and that distinct warehouse
smell, a not entirely welcome change from the lingering of yomogi
fragrance in my nostrils.

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Entrepreneur's Handbook Seminar 9th of June, 2007

If you have been considering setting up your own company,
find out what it takes to make it successful.
Terrie Lloyd, founder of over 13 start-up companies in Japan,
will be giving an English-language seminar and Q and A on
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This is an ideal opportunity to find out what is involved,
and to ask specific questions that are not normally answered
in business books.
All materials are in English and are Japan-focused.

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I remember when I read of Costco first opening in Japan back in
1999 thinking that it was a pretty far out marketing decision.
Why would Japanese people living in small apartments in Tokyo
want to clutter up their houses with a year’s supply of Dorito’s?
How would Costco deal with the culture of ma and pa stores that
has cultivated loyalty over generations? Wouldn’t the sheer size
and labyrinthine layout of the place totally baffle the nation of
Zen minimalism and an affinity for ‘set menus’?

In this sense, Costco has been surprisingly successful in the
Japanese market having steadily expanded from 1 to 6 stores.
Compared to Wal-mart’s turbulent experience in the Japanese
market, it’s success even more remarkable.

Headed by Mike Senegal, the son of the group’s founder, Costco in
Japan has been careful to take advice from local partners and not
to try and rush things. One thing that sticks out as I pottered
down the aisles between sweating Japanese families with their
oversize shopping carts, was the mix of imported and domestic
products available. I read up after that the ratio of Japanese to
foreign products is 60% to 40% respectively although the
statistics fail to make the impact that seeing it for real
does. Huge palettes of soy sauce stacked up next to giant
crates of Cardini’s salad dressing is quite a sight. The key
being that the imported items are not the ones that one sees in
the ‘foreign aisle’ of regular Japanese supermarkets. This
cunning mix of the familiar and exotic must surely one of the
reasons why customers keep coming back. Add to this the
competitive prices that are too much for young Japanese families
to ignore, and the mystery of Costco’s success makes a little
more sense. At 69 yen for a can of tuna in an 8 pack and 398 yen
for an industrial-sized bottle of fabric softener savings can be

A cheap delivery service takes care of any of the transportation
issues and the presence of the onsen, DIY warehouse and
restaurants in close proximity make it a day out for the Suzukis
approaching Disneyland levels of consumer fun. In terms of
storage space issues a Japanese friend told me that this is not
really much of a concern as all good household shopping
strategies are made long enough in advance to factor in cupboard
space into the equation! Compared with the savings the extra
effort in planning is well worth it, and the excursion is one
that all family members can look forward to.

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One item that really tickled me were the towers of Spam at the
end of one aisle, next to the bonito flakes. I think it must be
hard for anyone raised in Britain, or with a knowledge of Monty
Python to simply ignore these vast stacks of classically
designed cans housing equally voluminous amounts of pink wet
‘luncheon meat’. Having, lived in Okinawa where Spam is a common
ingredient in a number of local dishes - particularly in
champurus - I was surprised by my schoolboy like reaction.
As any Okinawan will tell you Spam is just another boot print of
US culture left by the occupation, but even such sobering
historical realities failed to prevent an inner giggle. But in
the market Spam appears to be doing well.


Even in the UK where the food is normally associated with
postwar school dinners, the meat in a can is making a comeback.
A few years ago The Guardian reported that sales of Spam in the
UK has increased by 10% a year, and given that it was flying off
the shelves in Tamasakai Costco, it may well be undergoing an
international renaissance.

So a day out in Tamasakai offers an interesting day out in with
activities and sights that simply could not exist without
Japan’s own history and the globalizing events of the twentieth
century. And for those that think it is a bit much to reach any
kind of profundity after a consideration bathing, Costco and Spam,
I’ll leave you with the link to view the timeless Monty Python
sketch that has apparently had so much influence on our
perception of processed meat in a tin:
Monty Python Spam Sketch Video

By Peter Harris
Chief Editor, J@pan Inc magazine

J@pan Inc invites all comments and suggestions on the content
of its newsletters, online and print media. Please visit our
website at www.japaninc.com or, if you have a comment directly
related to this article, email it to peter.harris@japaninc.com


Entrepreneur Association of Tokyo:
4 Year Anniversary Seminar - June 11

Speaker: Yoshito Hori, Chairman and CEO of Globis Group

Join us in celebrating our 4 year anniversary at the Globis
Head Office in Kojimachi with Yoshito Hori of Globis Group.
Founded in 1992 the Globis Group has five lines of business;
Globis Management School (GMS), Globis Organization Learning
(GOL), Globis Management Institute (GMI), Globis Management
Bank (GMB), and Globis Capital Partners (GCP) which manages
3 funds with ommitment exceeding JPY38bil. (US$360mil.).

Date/Time: Monday, June 11, 7:00 pm
Location: Globis Head Office
Language: English

Website: www.ea-tokyo.com
Email: info@ea-tokyo.com