|

Scanning headlines for business clues

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Before we had the Internet, much of the work that has now been taken over by Google and other search engines was done, the old-fashioned way, by poring over secondary sources such as newspapers and magazines.

In the 1980s, while working as an analyst in a market-research company, I typically went through six to eight Japanese-language newspapers and 専門紙 (senmonshi, trade publications) a day.

The purpose of this research was to sift through information in the public domain to hunt for, and report on, 社会や消費者市場の新しい動向 (shakai ya shōhisha shijō no atarashii dōkō, new social or consumer market trends). We focused on certain key words and expressions in Japanese and their frequency of appearance, and then used content analysis on those words and expressions to hunt for shifts or changes in market behavior.

To do this, I had to be constantly on the lookout for words like 流行る (hayaru, to be popular) as in 今年の夏、中年男性に半パンが流行ってる (kotoshi no natsu, chūnen dansei ni hanpan ga hayatteru, this summer, short pants are popular with middle-aged males).

Similar in meaning to hayaru is 人気 (ninki, popular) and its opposite, 不人気 (funinki, unpopular). A headline might express the situation as 人気失墜 (ninki shittsui, to suffer a drop in popularity). (Note however: 人気 can also be read hitoke, as in 人気がない (hitoke ga nai, deserted or no sign of life).

Another word I learned that was used to indicate popularity in the marketplace was 受ける (ukeru, to receive), which, in this case, could be translated as “something well accepted.” The same verb can be further emphasized as 大受け (ō-uke, “big accept,” i.e., lots of people are clamoring for it), while the negative form, 受けられず (ukerarezu), would be akin to “isn’t catching on.” Declining popularity was also expressed by the word 客離れ (kyaku-banare, customers bailing out).

In general conversation as well as news headlines, strong retail sales might also be expressed as よく売れる (yoku ureru, selling or moving well); and its opposite, まったく売れない (mattaku urenai, not moving at all).

The English expression “selling like hotcakes” has its Japanese counterpart in バカ売れ (baka-ure, selling like crazy). On the other hand, the word 完売 (kambai, completely sold out) might either indicate that merchandising efforts were successful, or that there was a run on the product, perhaps due to パニック買い (panikku gai, panic buying). In both cases, further study would be warranted.

A company with an overwhelming market share in a given product sector would be described as ダントツトップ (dantotsu toppu, far and away at the top). Beneath it, runners-up still enjoying good business could be described as 健闘 (kentō, literally: putting up a healthy fight), meaning to be performing reasonably well. The losers were at ドン底 (donzoko, the rock bottom).

I also kept an eye open for words that indicated radical changes in the marketplace, such as 急増 (kyūzō, rapid increase), or its opposite, 激減 (gekigen, sharp decrease).

In addition to growth and decline, another term analysts often found useful in indicating change was 不足 (fusoku), written with characters that literally mean “no legs,” but understood as meaning “insufficient.” This year for instance, due, perhaps, to an upturn in business as a result of the stimulus by “Abenomics,” more employers are finding it difficult to hold on to temporary or part-time workers, and headlines like アルバイト、パートが更に人手不足 (arubaito, pāto ga sara ni hitode busoku, the shortage of part-time workers gets even worse) have been appearing frequently.

During my market-watching activities, I’ve seen all kinds of companies come and go over the years. Some thrived while others reported 業績悪化 (gyōseki akka, worsening business performance), which, in the worst cases, led to 市場から撤退 (shijō kara tettai, to withdraw from the market).

Following a company’s 株主総会 (kabunushi sōkai, shareholders annual general meeting), the media might announce that the company was 不振 (fushin, in a slump) or 赤字 (akaji, in the red, or operating at a deficit). In addition to the figures on a company’s 決算書 (kessansho, balance sheet), the analysts also paid attention to reports concerning リストラ (risutora, corporate restructuring) and 解雇 (kaiko, dismissal of workers).

Two more danger signs indicating that a business might be ailing are 人事異動 (jinji-idō, personnel changes, in particular, the frequent turnovers of executives), the most worrisome of all being 社長解任 (shachō kainin, dismissal of the president). Another was 本社移転 (honsha iten, moving the location of the company headquarters), usually undertaken as an extreme budgetary measure. When a business has difficulty paying its rent, that’s a sure sign of trouble.