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In August, U.S. webzine Business Insider was one of the first news outlets to report that the COVID-19 pandemic was bringing a windfall to America’s billionaire entrepreneurs.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, was estimated to have added an additional $48 billion to his assets. Others enriched over the first six months of the pandemic included video-conferencing platform Zoom founder Eric Yuan, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and entrepreneur Elon Musk.

“Billionaires in the United States,” Business Insider reported, “have increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far.”

This naturally raises questions about Japan’s moneyed individuals. According to national census figures for 2015, Japan had 53.33 million households. Three years later, Nomura Research found that 1.27 million of those households could be described as “wealthy,” which — without naming names — is defined as people with financial assets (such as savings, securities and other investments, but discounting their own residential properties) exceeding ¥100 million. The income segment beneath, described as “semi-rich,” numbers 3.22 million households who boast assets of between ¥50 million to ¥100 million. Below them is a well-off segment of 7.2 million households with assets of ¥30 million to ¥50 million.

Writing in Sunday Mainichi (Oct. 11), Yumi Kondo examines the pandemic’s impact on people in the affluent and upper middle class. Among the easily observable phenomena have been sales of high-ticket car models. According to the manager of L’Operaio Setagaya, a dealership in Tokyo’s largest residential ward, sales have risen year on year by 30%.

“We’ve been moving such nameplates as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati,” company director Tsubasa Kubo is quoted as saying, noting that the sales share of models priced over ¥10 million has risen from 18% to 25% this year.

Kubo thinks that since overseas travel has become virtually impossible, people have been diverting more of their disposable income into new cars.

The increased spending has not been confined to residents of the capital. Nikkei Shimbun reported that a midsummer sales campaign at the Kohrinbo branch of the Daiwa department store in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, saw an upsurge of 20-30% in sales of pricey imports such as Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and other luxury brand goods over the previous year.

“With fewer chances to go out, the trend has been for people to spend more on high-quality items that have an investment value,” says Naomi Mano, president of the consultancy Luxurique. “Promotion aimed at premium customers has picked up; I’ve heard that domestic sales of clothing, jewelry and watches have recovered to normal levels.”

According to author Tokio Godo, the school closures during the pandemic also spurred the wealthy to spend more on their children’s education. Outlays for educational materials or tablet computers to facilitate home study have reportedly increased.

Has the bubble burst?

Have you been to tapiru lately? This does not refer to a large, herbivorous mammal, similar in shape to a pig, with a short, prehensile nose trunk, but is a recently coined Japanese verb meaning to go to drink a tapioca beverage. Also called bubble tea and a variety of other names, the sweet, chewy beverage has enjoyed great popularity among young Japanese women over the past several years.

Demand for bubble tea was such that, according to data provided by Tokyo Shoko Research, the number of companies involved in the trade more than doubled, from 60 in August 2019 to 125 one year later.

According to Nikkan Gendai (Oct. 14), however, increasingly fewer customers have been drinking tapioca tea as of late, suggesting that the next word in the Japanese lexicon might very well be tapi-banare (tapioca abandonment), signifying that its short-lived bubble in popularity may be on the verge of bursting.

The coronavirus pandemic, as usual, may be at least partially to blame, especially as many schools temporarily halted classes. In Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, the mecca for trend-conscious teens, at least 10 tapioca outlets — including those belonging to famous chains where it was common to see long lines of waiting customers — have closed. Around 1 p.m. on a weekday, a large shop with seating for 80 had only a single patron therein.

Young women may already be moving to the next fad, one candidate for which may be banana milkshakes. Others have discovered traditional Japanese confections. A Harajuku store offering mame-daifuku (spheres of glutinous rice stuffed with red bean) has been selling out its stock on a daily basis.

“If you don’t get there early in the morning, you won’t be able to buy any,” the proprietor of a neighboring shop was quoted as saying.

Nikkan Gendai’s writer added that tapioca booms appear to be harbingers of economic downturns. The previous boom took place in 2008, preceding the so-called Lehman Shock. This time it’s the coronavirus pandemic.

On three wheels

While we’re on the subject of eating and drinking, Shukan Jitsuwa (Oct. 29) notes that demand has taken off for three-wheeled electric-powered delivery vehicles with a canopy to ward off rain.

From October alone, delivery services of McDonald’s Japan, for example, added some 100 units at 44 of its outlets. By the year’s end, the company expects to expand to 320 units at 120 outlets.

The model of choice is the “AA Cargo,” produced in Japan but licensed from Italy’s Benelli Adiva. Powered by several engine displacements, the model features an innovative folding metal roof, which together with a windshield and side wind deflectors provide the rider and a passenger with protection from the elements.

The writer sees it as somewhat ironic that despite Japan’s rainy climate, its motorcycle manufacturers have not energetically developed the market for such weather-resistant vehicles, allowing “sunny Italy” to assume the role of trendsetter here. He also suggests that if the coronavirus pandemic persists, it won’t just be McDonald’s Japan that procures the snazzy models.

With more company workers determined to avoid the risk of infection while commuting on public transport, it’s entirely likely some may start flocking to the showroom of sales rep Aidea in Akasaka, Tokyo, and driving away aboard their own weatherproof three-wheeler.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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