"You can observe a lot just by watching."
~ Yogi Berra
It’s starting to happen here. The food crisis is quickly coming upon us. I think I’ve seen the beginning.
OK Store Company runs a chain of grocery stores here in Tokyo. The local branch is a giant store that rivals the size and carries the variety of any large grocery store that you would see anywhere in Suburban America.
OK Store policy is “Everyday Low Price” which means they do not have a native English speaker writing their slogans, nor do they have gimmicks or sales; they just sell their goods at the lowest price possible.
OK Store doesn’t even give you a grocery bag when you buy groceries. You either have to buy one at about 7 cents each, or bring your own; or, what we always do is to use a few of the cardboard boxes that they have stacked up near the side of the exit. This is a smart move by OK Store. They would just have to pay for these boxes — that arrived filled with goods and are now empty — to be thrown away. Why not allow customers to use these for free to take their groceries home and, at the same time, take OK Store trash home with them? Whoever thought of this should have been given a raise.
We go to OK Store once a week to buy necessities and stock up on goods. The store opens at 10 a.m. and we try to be some of the first people in because that place is packed by 10:30 and there are long lines at the checkout counter. We find that getting there early allows us easy parking and to be in and out within 35 minutes. Usually, by the time we would leave, the parking lot would be full and there would be a line of 10 to 20 cars waiting to get a parking place.
Things have been changing these last few weeks. I believe that the first signs of a food panic are coming upon Japan. Here’s why:
Until recently, we would arrive at OK Store at 9:45 and drive right in. No crowds, no worries. But things have changed lately in many ways. Now, there is a line-up of cars to enter the parking lot at 9:45. We’ve now changed our plans and will begin arriving at 9:30 next week.
OK Store has always sold products by the cases, but it seemed that very few people ever bought those besides us. One day when we were loading up on canned food and water, one of our friend’s saw us and seemed quite surprised. She looked bemused by the fact that this crazy foreigner and his wife were buying up stocks of items that were readily available. At that time, they were. Most people in Tokyo don’t stock up more than a few days of food and water because land prices in Tokyo are exorbitant, and so, people live in small quarters; there’s no place to store stocked up goods.
At that time, about two months ago, a package of 12 rolls of toilet paper sold for about $1.93. Now that same package sells for $2.34. I had also bought cases of canned corn and other canned items. The prices of those items have all increased by about $0.15 per each can. The cost for a case of pasta noodles; then $2.76 a single package; now $3.64. The list goes on and on.
The other thing that goes on and on is the bad economic news. Japanese importers and food manufacturers are all announcing price increases daily. Some items have become scarce. For example, butter has been hard to get recently and cheese and margarine are not far behind. This is the topic of the day for Japanese housewives. Rice prices have been stable for years. So what does the government do to calm a worried public over food prices? They start up a $2 million dollar TV and poster campaign pushing the Japanese to eat more rice.
Ignoring he fact that asking Japanese people to eat rice is like asking a fish to swim in water; but what happens to the price of a certain food if the demand goes up? And who, by the way, eventually has to pay for this ridiculous $2 million dollar ad campaign? Not to mention that there already is a rice shortage.
Now, of course, no one expects that the government will do anything but make things worse; with the government printing fiat money and the value of our “money” declining, a rise in prices is expected. But the thing that convinced me that the crisis is coming here soon is the fact that yesterday it suddenly seemed like all the customers at OK Store were buying goods by the case. Some shelves, where canned items stood, were bare; and the store hadn’t even been opened for 30 minutes by then. In other places, OK Store had items in cases stacked, not only on the shelves, but even on the floor. Could the management of this store be seeing the same trend I do? Is he demand for cases of items greatly increasing? If so, why?
Did they have any butter? Yes, they did. But enough on hand to last until noon, maybe. Also, a sign said, u2018Only one per customer please.’ It also looked as if the size of the butter package is about 20% smaller than it was two months ago. Subtlety, the mood of the customers seemed different than usual. Everyone seemed a bit harried, nervous. They were all in a rush, much more than usual. Have you ever been to a demonstration or concert that turned into a riot? I have. There’s a certain tension in the air. It’s like a fuse on a firecracker burning. It seemed to me that the other shoppers were in the few steps preceding a stampede. Almost all of the shopping carts had a few cases of this or that in each.
Perhaps it’s just my paranoia, but it seemed that people were checking my cart to see “what the foreigners are stocking up on.” I know that Japanese people believe that the foreigners are up on financial trends before the Japanese are. Whether it is true that we really are or not, I don’t know. But there is an old Japanese saying that goes, “When America sneezes, Japan catches cold.” Now that Japan is holding much of America’s debt, I wonder if this saying might be better as; “When America sneezes, Japan catches cold and has to pay for the doctor’s bills too.”
All levity aside, this is what I feel and see going on here. What this has to do with you, please decide for yourself.
I think when people are drowning; it is wise to try to keep your eyes and ears open and stay atop.
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He is the president of a mass-media production company and also runs a talent agency in Japan. He is now the Producer/Director/Co-host of Good Morning Garage, the most popular FM radio morning show in Tokyo. His book, Schizophrenic in Japan, went on sale in 2005.