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5.30.2012

The Illusion of Homogeneity in Japan and Its Cruelty


When I was attending primary school in a white neighborhood in the United States as the first ever Asian child to attend that school, there were times when I felt that the other kids were making fun of my ethnicity. I am sure it was no illusion. And there were many times when I cried to myself about how unfair that was because I had not CHOSEN to be born Asian or Japanese... that is what I am.

It may have been why I yearned to return to Japan as early as age 11.

As a Japanese national, I wanted to graduate from a Japanese university, and decided that it was best for me to attend a Japanese secondary school to go to a Japanese high school so that I could attend a Japanese university.

I told my parents this and it was decided that I would attend boarding school and return to Japan ahead of the rest of my family.

A few weeks later, my father was given orders by his employer to return to Japan. So the entire family was returning and I did not need to go away to boarding school.

What was tough and cruel for me was that even though I hail from Japanese parents, was born in Osaka, and speak Japanese as my mother tongue, the kids in my secondary school saw me as "an alien." I was "gaijin" or outsider, and they taunted me for everything they could possibly find that was different from the comfortable, near uniform existence that they led for the first 11 years of their lives.

My mother allowed me to get my ears pierced for my seventh birthday, which was my first birthday since moving to the US in 1974. That labelled me as a juvenile delinquent in Japan.

My mother has naturally chestnut hair, which is lighter than the "black like a wet crow" colour that the Japanese cherish, and on top of that, her hair is naturally wavy. I inherited those instead of my father's slick black and straight hair. That added to my being different and delinquent.

I was not the tallest girl in my class, but was among the three tallest, which made me stand out because I was taller than most of the boys.

Lastly, of course, I spoke English fluently while my classmates were just about to embark on their English education journey, starting with the ABCs. Even the teacher hated me for that.

So I toughened up in the way only kids who have a rough time fitting in do.

It helped that I was athletic, got top grades, and was articulate when I spoke.

I had no illusions of being the most popular girl in school, but I was known. Everyone knew about the "cocky foreigner with the red hair."

Today, when I make the rare effort to appear at class reunions, I am still subject to curious gazes and comments about my unusual career and family.

I despise people who tell me how "lucky" I am that I speak fluent English and have "beautiful half children." That is what they call half-blooded children, "Halves."

My twins are doubly "cursed" - they are twins AND halves.

Whenever we took them to a group medical check up hosted by the local government or the zoo, people pointed and spoke of them as if I was deaf. Said they,
"Oh, look! Half twins!"
"Oh, they look like dolls! Half twins!!! Look!"

Some even had the audacity to take photos of them with their mobile phones or cameras without asking me or the twins' father.

Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore once said that it is easy to defeat a single Japanese, but impossible to beat Japanese when we come in groups.

The flip side of that is that if one does NOT fit into a clearly defined group in Japan, one is an outsider and those on the outside of "the circle (of trust, if you will)," cannot be trusted.

Have no illusions - once on the outside, one is always an outsider.

Sometimes the distinctions made are subtle, but other times, it is quite obvious and feels even obnoxious.

With the aging population and declining birth rate, Japan may have to rethink its tight immigration policies. But no law will be able to change the social mindset about outsiders and insiders. It is too ingrained in our DNA.

It is one of the reasons why I pain over the future treatment my twins will receive as they grow up...

And then again, of course, they will be tougher than the other kids who have never been subject to such treatment. Their mother is a fine example of that.

5.29.2012

Konpu Gacha in Social Gaming - A New Drug or a New Face on an Old Villain?

GREE and Mobage, operated by GREE and DeNA are Japan's leaders in mobile social gaming.

DeNA's turnover for FY2011, period ending March 2012, was JPY145,729 million yen or US$1.83 billion.

GREE's FY2011 turnover was JPY64,178 million yen or US$807 million.

And in this day and age of sluggish or negative growth in the economy itself, they are enjoying double-digit year-on-year growth.

Their secret?

Game add-ons. One former employee of a social gaming giant told me five years ago that their daily take on add-ons, averaging US$2.00 to US$3.50 a piece, can be as high as US$2 million in revenue IN A DAY when.

They call it "small change business" whereby consumers don't realize they are making large purchases at all, and thus, become immune to the spending.

And in recent years, one of their biggest cash cows was "gacha" and "konpu gacha" (complete gacha) - a card collection system built into games whereby players can pay to buy cards that will help them get to the next stage of the game. The catch is that (a) players cannot pick the cards they are buying as it is a blind, lucky-draw type sale (i.e. one will definitely get a card but there is no guarantee on what card they will get), and (b) some cards have lower odds than others to appear, and (c) even rarer or more valuable cards are only attainable once the player has a complete set of cards (for konpu gacha).

The market rate per card is JPY300, or US$3.77, but there have been reports that minors have racked up bills in the thousands of dollars while grownups have been set back in the TENS of thousands of dollars. And this is PER MONTH, not year!

On May 7, the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) announced that they will investigate the legality of such games and gaming companies stocks lost 20% to 25% of their value by the close of trade.

The companies quickly announced self-regulation matters and according to the Japan Times, one CEO even publicly announced that he was not aware of the 1977 law the CAA was referring to upon questioning the legality of the konpu gacha system.

The said law was introduced in response to card collecting children spending extravagantly to complete their collections - be it baseball cards or super hero cards.

The buzz word in the media related to this subject since has been "speculative spirit" - which is what the gaming system appeals to and what the law the CAA is trying to apply specifies as the poison that traps consumers.

Some PR specialists have noted that perhaps "speculative spirit" will become one of the buzz words of the year.

What is interesting about the application or the attempt to apply this law to social gaming is how the word "speculative spirit" has been applied to prohibit gambling and how it is the focal key in the ongoing debate about whether pachinko palours are legal or not.

Pachinko is a "pin ball game" operated in pachinko parlours. Players buy a box of balls and play to win more balls. As it is technically illegal to win cash, as that violates our laws that prohibit gambling, players are able to exchange their balls upon leaving the parlours for prizes.

There is a legal cap on the unit price of the top prize, but there is no legal cap on how many prizes one can take away.

When I was a sales rep for the now infamous Olympus Optical Co., Ltd. in the camera division, my first full time job after university more than 20 years ago, my claim to fame was that I secured an account that purchased the entry-level camera, priced at under JPY10,000, or the legal prize cap at the time, as a top prize for the pachinko parlours.

Many of my esteemed colleagues initially taunted me by saying,
"We thought you were someone who walked only under the sun. We now see that you move in the shadows, too"
But as I always say about sales people - history is made by the victors = those who sell the most - once the first order of 2,000 units came in, they decided to wait and see.

Then, when another 2,000 units went out the door the following week, and the week after as well for the remainder of the year, I was recognized with the equivalent of the "Sales Rep of the Year" Award. I was only the third "million-dollar player" in the Tokyo Office, or a sales rep that sells more than $1 million per half year, at the time, and the only one who did not have a wholesale or electronics shop chain as an account. That _was_ a breakthrough in lead generation and account management at the time.

As much as I was thrilled that my hard work paid off, it was almost scary to see the pace with which the cameras were taken up.

Even on weekdays, one often sees a queue outside of the pachinko parlous before they open their doors for the day. I used to have classmates who would spend their entire days in pachinko parlous when I was in Uni.

I have personally never set foot in such a place (despite selling to them!), but whenever I read about children left in cars to suffocate in pachinko parlour parking lots thanks to their mothers or parents being addicted to the game, or neglected children getting hit by cars outside of such parlous, my heart sinks.

A while back, I believe there were articles written about how Online gaming has become recognized as an addiction and how marriages and lives have been destroyed by gaming addicts who could no longer function socially thanks to their addiction and loss of touch with time, social commitments, and family.

Perhaps gambling is only preceded by prostitution as an old vice. Or are they contemporaries?

And konpu gacha definitely looks like a new exterior for an old villain.

GREE and DeNA as actively pursuing their overseas business expansion plans. You may be hooked before you know it, too. Watch out!

5.24.2012

When Receiving Vouchers Become Offensive

I was actually offended this morning when I got an email from one of my favourite online craft stores announcing "Here is a 100 yen voucher from XXX" in the subject line.

100 yen... USD1.26... EUR1...RMB8...

It just isn't worth my time.

It costs me anywhere from 550 yen to 660 yen just to open the door and slide into a cab and travel 1.2km!

Sure, there are a number of things one can do with a ball of yarn, but yesterday, I bought 10 balls of imported Italian linen (92%) and polyester (8%) yarn for @148 yen per ball at DISCOUNT.

What in the bloody world am I supposed to do with 100 yen???

And to think just last week, they sent me 1,000yen!!!

Maybe it was a typographical error, but seeing the subject was enough for me NOT to click on the email to open it. But then again, I felt like opening the email and clicking on the link inside just in case they were paying someone per click... wicked me.

One of the many classic lines from "The Godfather" that all marketers love is:
"I made him an offer he couldn't resist."
But good heavens, isn't that like 101 in marketing? Sending out offers that is worth someone's time to consider?

In the brick & mortar world, consumers drive miles to go to a petrol station that offers a few yen or cents cheaper per liter petrol, when in fact, they may be consuming whatever they save vs. the local petrol station on the extra travel.

I witness many full time homemakers queuing up at the super market when items are advertised to be "the lowest price this year." With some items, I often wonder if they actually need those items that are marked down or if the sense of buying something at a bargain drives them to spend.

And thus, online purchasing behavior is probably not so different.

Hence, such "gathering" sites as NetPrice, that enable consumers to get items at lower prices if they can call on friends to buy the same item as well and enjoy benefit of scale discounts, thrive and flourish. (NetPrice existed about 8 years before Groupon and Gilt were launched... the only difference with their system is that NetPrice does not offer time limits and they do not utilize Twitter and SNS as much or at least did not until recently.)

Flash sales are here to stay, and compare and shop sites online like kakaku.com are not going away, either.

Another constant is that consumers seek "convenience" and some will even pay for it.

I am beginning to think these days that saying "consumers are increasingly time poor" is a myth.
Perhaps consumers of yesteryears had less time than we did because it took them longer to find directions and information without the Internet and mobile connectivity devices we so rely on these days.

Yes, there is now more competition for our time across different media, and our children need to do so many things now that require our help! But we are not having more children than the previous generation so even if after school or extra-curricular activity per child increased, the fact that we have less children probably make up for it.

So I firmly believe it is not so much the time, but how much something contributes to making my life easier or more convenient determines whether that something is worth my time or not.

Yes, saving money is important, but that benefit must not be outweighed by the downside of the deal (extra click? driving that extra distance? and so on). And of course, the deal has to be relevant to me for me to even consider it.

I wish somewhere, someone would finally understand and make changes to whatever database they have captured me on to reflect the fact that I am not a man looking for cheap Viagra and stop sending me emails about it. I also wish people would understand that I do NOT need English lessons. Vouchers for either are not attractive to me and I abhor the time it takes for me to delete such emails.