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Bruce Newman
August 21, 1989
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August 21, 1989

Japan: Coming On Strong


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The Japanese already are one of the world's largest consumers of snow skis. For some, skiing has become a mania to rival golf. Ski trips in Japan can involve a nine-hour train ride after work on Saturday nights, lift lines on Sunday afternoons that stretch out to two hours, then another long train ride back to Tokyo, with the skier often arriving just in time for work Monday morning. To reduce inefficiency and travel time, the Japanese have developed urban ski resorts in downtown office buildings. "Our businessman is a workaholic, so he wants to combine business and leisure time," says Kazuya Naito, assistant manager of the Sayama indoor skiing facility in suburban Tokyo. "It is the nature of the Japanese. In your culture, business and pleasure are separate. Our Japanese businessman needs something close at hand to release his tension." Sayama trucks in thousands of tons of glacial ice in 300-pound blocks in the fall, grinds them up into slush and guarantees skiers a 14-inch base of snow on a slope that is 300 meters long. Already there are plans for year-round indoor ski resorts in Osaka (with one hill for beginners and another for advanced skiers), one near Tokyo Bay (with a snowmaking system in the ceiling to simulate snowfall), and another on the southern island of Kyushu, which will have a snowmaker running on turbine engines driven by the heat of a volcano near the facility.

The peak season, as it were, at the two carpet-skiing resorts operated by Victoria runs from October to December, when there are three skiers on the slope at all times and waiting times of up to 30 minutes. Half-hour lessons cost $21. "There are some people who cannot afford to go to the mountains, who only ski here," says one of the dashing broadloom instructors at the facility on the eighth floor of the Victoria building in Tokyo. (One supposes that after a really hot run, carpet skiers can sit in the apr�s-ski lounge and talk about how deep the pile was and compare rug burns into the night.)

Because skiing was booming in Japan, it was a natural next step for Victoria, which last year had sales of $450 million (70% in ski-related merchandise) to expand to the biggest playground of them all, the U.S. In the wake of its acquisitions of Breckenridge and Stratton, Victoria has the capacity to provide Japanese skiers with a package that includes clothes, equipment, lift tickets and lodging, without anyone leaving any money behind in Colorado or Vermont. "Victoria Company isn't going to sit still after an investment of that magnitude," says Haruo Tanaka, vice-president of Chiemori Kogyo Co. Ltd.—Denver, a real estate company. "They'll be creating lots of exposure to bring Japanese tourists here." A Victoria spokesman says an experimental tour package to Breckenridge was sold in Japan last winter, but he insists the idea of shuttling large groups of Japanese tourists to the U.S. to ski is still being studied. "Maybe we can learn something about leisure concepts from Americans," he adds enigmatically.

The strength of the yen almost certainly will continue to make American resorts a cheap pickup for Japanese investors. During the two months that elapsed between Sports Shinko's decision to buy La Costa and the actual closing of the deal, the decline of the dollar against the yen reportedly saved the Japanese company $45 million. And it was no doubt the disparity in the strength of the two currencies that prompted the Kamori Kanko Ltd. to consider Steamboat a bargain at a reported price of $100 million. "I hope this means we'll finally get a sushi restaurant," said former U.S. Olympian Billy Kidd, now the resort's director of skiing.

But not everyone in Colorado was so pleased. "At this rate, it's going overboard," said grocer Harley Fry of Steamboat Springs. "They own about half the United States now." Outside one house in Steamboat, a hand-painted sign reads THIS FARM NOT FOR SALE TO JAPANESE.

While Japanese investment in the U.S. helps the American economy, it also increases xenophobic anxieties. According to a study by the World Policy Institute. Americans now spend less time worrying about the Soviet nuclear threat and more about being overrun economically by the Japanese. That fear ignores the fact that the British are more heavily invested in the U.S. than the Japanese, and that the Dutch and Canadians are not far behind. "If a Canadian guy comes and spends a lot of money in this country, nobody's upset," says Karl Uesugi of Uniden. "But if a little Oriental guy comes over and does the same thing, everybody's upset. Japanese people should learn from this, but at the same time Americans have to learn too."

If the Japanese are troubled by this sort of reaction, they can at least understand it. In 1635 the shogun's government began cutting off travel into or out of Japan, and for two centuries the country remained isolated. Even now, Japan is one of the most racially homogeneous countries in the world.

"To be different in this society is very difficult," says a Tokyo correspondent for a Western news organization. Forty-one years old, he only recently decided to stop trying to conceal from friends that he is actually an ethnic Korean, not Japanese as he has pretended for most of his life to be. He still feels it necessary to keep his nationality a secret from his business associates.

The first battleground in the war to see who controls the way America plays is Hawaii. The Japanese already account for 20% of Hawaii's tourism, and they own two thirds of the state's major hotels. This year on the island of Maui alone, the Shinwa Golf Group of Kyoto has spent $195 million buying a hotel, two 18-hole golf courses and a 14-court tennis complex in Wailea.

Twenty percent of Hawaii's gross state product is a result of economic activity created by Japanese visitors and investors, but to some Hawaiians, the Japanese seem intent upon developing a circular economy. "They fly in on Japan Air Lines, get on a Japanese tour bus that takes them to a Japanese-owned hotel, play on Japanese-owned golf courses while their wives shop in commercial villages run by Japanese merchants," says Greg Shannon, a medical technician who belongs to Hands Around Oahu, a group that is trying to stop the proliferation of private golf courses on the island. "They've got the whole loop set up so that it completely cuts out the local businessman."

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