Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Join Us

If this doesn't creep you out a little bit, it may be too late for you.

As a poorly-thought-out name, JoinUs is right up there with Telus (for those unfamiliar with the latter, that's the name of a cell-phone company. In the age of roving wiretaps, someone thought it would be a good idea to call their company Telus. Tell us, tell us everything ... what disturbs me is that so few people seem to get the intrinsic irony of that name. But I digress.) JoinUs is a department store (as a note, Japan doesn't do malls; department stores fill that particular economic niche), one of several competing chains in this country ... though since they're probably owned by the same conglomerate, sort of like Canada's deer old Chapters/Indigo monopoly, they're probably 'competing' only in the loosest possible sense.

Which isn't why Joinus is kind of a creepy name. You'd really have to be here to understand, but I'll try to give you a sense of it.

Picture hordes of cookie-cutter young women, all immaculately made-up, all wearing similar over-priced fashions and clutching the exact same Louis Vuitton bags. A tide of salarimen in more-or-less identical dark suits, white shirts, and indifferent ties. All working their asses off, so that they can afford the ludicrously priced fashions offered by such fine establishments as Joinus.

Ludicrously priced, you say? But this is Japan. Tokyo no less. You should expect that. Everything's expensive in Japan, isn't it?

Well ... no. Most non-durable goods are about the same as in Canada; some (for instance, booze) is much cheaper, about half the price. As for durable goods, things like electronics are very similarly priced. Even land has been getting significantly cheaper since the bubble burst.

In fact, about the only things that seem a lot more expensive are luxury items (those Louis Vuitton handbags, again.) To give you an example, a friend of mine (another English teacher) used to work at the Coach store in Toronto. She went into one of the franchises in Tokyo, to compare, and found one purse that was exactly the same model, for about three or four times the price. Keep in mind that these things are made in Thailand or Indonesia or something, so they only have to travel a fraction of the distance to get to Tokyo that they have to travel to get to Toronto. Basically, demand for these items is so staggeringly high that the prices are pushed up into the stratosphere.

The baffling thing is that this has happened in the face of a decade-and-a-half of general economic crappiness. In most places, when money is tight, people cut back on luxury items and jack up the savings rate. Here, they spend everything they have on expensive clothes and accessories, and eat ramen noodles for the rest of the month. There's this overpowering desire they seem to feel to fit in with the crowd, to be just like everyone else; they follow trends so closely they're tailgating them, with the result that there's a constant pileup in the supply-demand equation.

Which is why the name 'JoinUs' struck me as so weirdly fitting. Come. Join us. Become one of us. Resistance is futile. You know you want it....

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