Since October, business media have focused on two topics at the near-exclusion of numerous others: the economic repercussions of the consumption tax hike and how that increase has influenced, or accelerated, a shift from cash to electronic payments.
This blanket coverage is probably one reason why although 88.3 percent of respondents to a survey the end of last year said they were at least vaguely aware of an impending law that will require retailers to charge customers for plastic bags, only 11.5 percent correctly knew that the law would take effect from July 1. By contrast, 20.7 percent incorrectly believed the law would begin from April. Far more — 60.4 percent — said they didn’t know the date at all.
The containers and packaging recycling law aims to encourage recycling and reduce the consumption of plastic. Customers will be expected to pay for their reji bukuro, a term truncated from the Japanese translation of the English words for “(cash) register” and “bag.”
Retailers have typically dispensed these to customers free of charge.
At least some understand why the law makes sense.
“When I fish in the ocean, I see lots of plastic bags floating in the water,” a 51-year-old Osaka man remarked online. “Likewise when I fish off a pier — the water’s full of trash. I try to carry as much of my own trash as I can back home, but I probably discard more than I take home.”
Among the alternatives to shelling out money for a bag is to carry one’s own mai baggu (my bag), typically a reusable item made of cotton or synthetic materials.
If there’s a downside — and there’s always a hitch — it’s likely to be the fate of the small- and medium-sized companies producing plastic bags, food trays and related items.
Many are small-scale cottage industries situated in rural parts of the country and, for them, increasingly, the conservation laws will constitute something akin to a death sentence.
An article in Spa (Jan. 14-21) is headlined “Wave of ‘Greta Bankruptcies’ to occur!” Greta, of course, refers to Greta Thunberg, Sweden’s iconic teen environmentalist who was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019.
“Last August, a local foodstuffs company informed us it was dropping the use of plastics,” Mr. S, operator of a sub-sub-contractor in the Inland Sea region, told Spa. “That accounts for about 30 percent of our business. I applied to a local credit union for a business loan to tide me over while we downsize. The loan was initially approved, but then abruptly canceled. Explaining his reasons, the loan officer repeatedly invoked Greta’s name. If I can’t obtain financing soon, I’ll have no choice but to file for bankruptcy.”
During 2018, according to government data, some 12,000 firms in Japan were producing plastic products, employing more than 400,000 workers. Industry figures report that from March 2019, year-on-year production fell for four consecutive months. Bag producers have been accorded practically no grace period to develop new products or restructure, and Mr. S predicts that by the time the new law goes into effect, Japan can expect to see a spate of bankruptcies.
“Toyama Prefecture already pre-empted the law to charge for plastic bags from 2008,” a member of a federation of companies supplying raw materials to plastic bag manufacturers told Spa. “Consumption of reji bukuro there dropped by 90 percent. Our group has 60 members engaged exclusively in making bags and, if demand were to fall commensurately, I suppose they’ll be facing a severe situation.”
It is expected some people will still be prepared to pay for bags. The Nikkei Marketing Journal (Jan. 17) cited a survey of 1,000 adults concerning bag usage that was conducted last November by Tokyo-based research firm Neo Marketing Inc.
Overall, 68.9 percent said they intended to stop using the bags. As opposed to 58.4 percent of male respondents who said they intended to curtail or halt bag use, like-minded females were considerably higher, at 79.4 percent.
For those willing to pay, it would appear that the “sweet spot” in terms of pricing is ¥4 to ¥5 per bag.
One place to observe bag strategies will be Japan’s convenience stores. Thanks to their long operating hours, plethora of financial services and access to clean rest rooms, they appear to have successfully warded off the threat from drugstores, whose appeal seems to have peaked several years ago.
However, a new type of store has been making rapid inroads on the retail front. Shukan Jitsuwa (Jan. 23) reports on the growing popularity of a new business model developed by Kobe Bussan Co., Ltd., whose stores go by the name Gyomu Supa. The name defies simple translation, but probably “specialty supermarket” might fit in this case.
“These stores had originally aimed at supplying restaurants and other food service businesses, but post signs saying ‘Individual customers welcome,'” a business reporter was quoted as saying. “They sell high-quality items at large volume, which anybody can afford.”
The chain made national headlines 11 months ago when it was featured on TBS television. The presenters raved about its low prices — like a kilogram of yakisoba noodles for ¥138 and 2 kilograms of chicken parts for ¥820. A “celebrity housewife,” former professional wrestler Akira Hokuto, appeared on the show, and raved to the audience about the stores, where she shops regularly.
As of the end of October, Kobe Bussan was operating 845 such outlets around the country. Investor dividends last year elevated it to eighth place in its business sector.
The company offers a high ratio of its own private brands and is said to have tied up with some 350 overseas suppliers, including producers of halal foods.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.