National

Tokyo's Kabutocho financial district gets creative in bid to revive its quiet streets

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

It’s a Monday night in late November and Ryutei Ichiya, a kimono-clad 34-year-old rakugo comic raconteur, is performing a skit in front of a crowd of over 100.

Sitting on a red zabuton (floor cushion) perched on an elevated platform, Ichiya animatedly navigates between different voice tones and body gestures to portray the characters in the tale he chose to conjure up that day.

It’s like any of the numerous one-man rakugo gigs taking place in the nation on any given night, except for the venue. Ichiya is showcasing his centuries-old Japanese craft of comedic storytelling in the world’s fourth-largest bourse: the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

“I’ve never invested in stocks, but I learned a thing or two about it preparing for the show,” Ichiya said during a recent interview. “Now I’m interested in giving it a try, and I hope the guests feel that way, too.”

The performance was one of a series of initiatives the TSE and its landlord, Heiwa Real Estate Co., is rolling out to entice new investors and revive the capital’s Nihonbashi Kabutocho district, Japan’s equivalent to Wall Street.

In its heyday in the 1980s, when the economy was in high gear, more than 2,000 brokers crowded the trading floor of the TSE, communicating via hand signals. Those who worked in the area in that era recall how local bars and restaurants were packed with traders unwinding with beer and sake after the market closed.

But while the Nikkei stock average is enjoying a resurgence, the neighborhood is eerily quiet.

The vibrant scene disappeared when the floor closed in 1999 and an electronic trading system took over after years of economic stagnation. The neighborhood is now a nondescript maze of gray buildings — a stark contrast to the upscale Marunouchi and Otemachi districts only blocks away, where major banks and financial firms occupy modern skyscrapers and high-end shopping and dining complexes attract both domestic and overseas visitors.

“There were around 80 brokerage offices in the district back then, but now that figure has dwindled to around 20. The area rapidly lost its luster and excitement after computers came in,” said Yuji Tomiyasu, deputy general manager of investor relations at Heiwa Real Estate, which is headquartered in Kabutocho. “We want to draw people back to our town.”

The company announced in August plans to build a 15-story business complex on a 3,350 square-meter plot near the TSE in the first round of its project to redevelop the area.

The building, slated to be completed in 2020, will house a large hall where companies can hold shareholders meetings, as well as a seminar room, lounge space and a cafe. The rest of the floors will be open to corporate offices. Heiwa projects that the new complex, which will cost around ¥20 billion, will attract around 80,000 people annually.

It won’t stop there. Over the next 15 years, the company plans to redevelop roughly 100,000 square meters of land in the district in successive phases.

More broadly, the Kabutocho project is part of an effort by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to reclaim the city’s position as Asia’s leading financial hub.

Tokyo was ranked fifth — behind London, New York, Singapore and Hong Kong — in the most recent Global Financial Centres Index, a biannual study produced by the Z/Yen Group in London and the China Development Institute in Shenzhen.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has described the capital as being a financially closed-off “Galapogos” and wants to ease regulations and tax systems so more foreign firms feel inclined to set up by 2020, when Tokyo will be hosting the Olympic Games.

Measures include simplifying procedures for corporate registration and licensing as well as expediting entry programs. The plan also sees building international schools in areas of the city undergoing redevelopment and providing serviced apartments for foreign professionals.

The area Heiwa Real Estate is redeveloping was granted special economic zone status from Tokyo in 2015, fast-tracking license registrations and allowing it to construct buildings with larger-than-standard floor-area ratios.

But infrastructure projects and regulatory easing may not be enough to spur broader interest in investing.

In a report the metro government compiled in November, it said the capital’s current global position could be attributed to several underlying phenomena. Topping the list were demographics and saving habits.

Like the rest of the nation, Tokyo has seen its population gray, with a record-high 23.3 percent of its residents estimated to be over 65 as of September. Meanwhile, over half of the nation’s ¥1.8 quadrillion in financial assets held by households remains in cash and deposits and belong to those over 60.

In short, people are reluctant to invest in riskier assets, and those who can afford to are getting older.

“The market is buoyant and trading volume is high, but the younger generation, especially women, remain unfamiliar with investing,” said Tsuyoshi Masuda, director of financial literacy support at the Japan Exchange Group Inc., which operates the TSE.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s deflation-fighting economic policy mix and the Bank of Japan’s massive monetary easing program have revived the Nikkei to a quarter-century high, while the average daily trading volume on the exchange’s first section has doubled compared with the post-Lehman shock years.

But a TSE-commissioned study conducted by NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting Inc. paints a somewhat different picture.

The survey showed that despite daily media coverage of market movements, roughly 60 percent of 10,000 respondents either did not know — or had heard about, but did not know specifics of — what stocks are. That ratio soared to around 80 percent among women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, a startling figure considering how the nation’s baby boomers — who will be 75 or older in 2025 — are beginning to transfer their assets to their children.

The report said growth in trading volume did not reflect an increase in private investors, but rather increased transactions among existing players.

The situation is what inspired ideas like Ichiya’s performance.

“Reaching out to rakugo is part of our efforts to solicit interest in investing,” JPX’s Masuda said. “Rakugo has been suffering from a similar situation — its fan base is aging and in need of new blood. We thought bringing those two together will spark new interest.”

As part of his performance, Ichiya premiered a new skit he wrote specially for guests gathered by the make-shift stage at the TSE that night. It involved a jealous wife unaccustomed to investment lingo suspecting her husband was having an affair with a lady named NISA — which is actually short for Nippon Individual Savings Account, a type of tax exemption program for small investments.

Ichiya’s tale drew hearty laughs from the mixed crowd that included many young women.

Among them was Mariko Suzuki, chief executive of Toe The Line Inc., a startup she launched last year that operates Kinyu-Joshi (literally translated to financial women), an online and offline community for women who are interested in but have limited knowledge of how the financial industry works.

The community, which now boasts 1,000 members, hosts various events and weekly joshikai (girls-only gatherings) at a cafe owned by Heiwa Real Estate in Kabutocho, where they talk about anything from recent investment trends to relationships and lingerie.

Suzuki, who helped promote the rakugo event, said the concept dawned on her when she was working for a financial technology (fintech) venture and struggled to make sense of complicated investment guides.

“Instead, what I found more informative and fun was casually sitting down for coffee or drinks with people from the financial sector,” she said.

She was the type of person Heiwa Real Estate and the TSE wanted to connect with. Now she collaborates with them regularly on events in the district — like a Halloween night tour of the bourse — while providing a platform where financiers can get realistic feedback on new products and services from their target audience.

Suzuki is ready to dive deeper into the community to energize the area — she’s planning to transfer her office from Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district to Kabutocho in January.

“I hope we can help liven up this town.”

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