The 2-Minute Thought: Why laundromats in Japan are booming

japanupdate.com

japanupdate.com

“Anyone wondering what a decade of deflation, rising female labour participation, falling marriage rates and soaring pollen counts can do to a nation could study Japan’s self-service launderettes boom.”  So riffed the Financial Times poetically last fall.

In most of the developed world, self-service laundries have been declining – which  makes sense in a world of rising rents and falling purchase prices for washers and dryers. 

But in Japan the number of “coin laundries” (as they’re called there) has risen 63% since 1996 to 6500. Contrast this with the UK, where launderettes (as they’re called there) have declined the past two decades to about 3000. 

The first explanation usually given is that good home dryers aren’t common in Japan.  The tradition has been to line-dry clothing outside.  But in the rainy season, freezing winters, and small living spaces, that becomes less appealing when coin laundries offer an alternative.

Other possible explanations hint at bigger socio-economic change:  More women in the work force mean fewer have the time to hang-dry.  The numbers of never-married and divorced have increased (and presumably they live in smaller spaces and use self-service laundries more).  And those hot commercial coin-laundry machines are just deemed better at handling the pollen that has worsened with environmental change. 

Then there is the question of decades of deflation:  Have the years of demoralizing economic stagnation quashed aspirations of owning a big house and washing machine?  Younger generations, after all, have learned to be amazingly frugal.  A separate Financial Times article  described Japanese youths as risk-averse penny-pinchers who dare not dream big, let alone change jobs.  Yet they habitually inconvenience themselves to save as little as a dime on the most trivial purchase.  Safety, not wealth, is the priority.  So who indeed in this environment would want to buy a washer and dryer? 

In any case, the quotes in the FT article are marvelously revealing

(http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/1b24264e-b9d8-11e5-bf7e-a339b6f2164.html#axzz41lw83pG0) subscription required:

“Deflation has made Japan unable to think.  The generation turning 20 does not dream big but looks for small [moments of] happiness in their current situation.  They don’t save for something big, but as insurance.”  Takuro Morinaga, best-selling author on frugal living

“Deflation lives in our minds and has become normal . . . I am sure that if you gave me Y100,000 now, I would save 99 percent of it.”  Teru Kohara, student

“The lesson we have learnt is that we need to save as much as we can and take as little risk as possible.”  - Yusuke Hamada, 20 years old.

“Our generation learnt the lesson that if you take a risk you can always get back to a position of safety.  It is not so easy for Japan’s 20 year-olds.  There is no real market for mid-career recruitment so you know that if you quit your job, the second one is not going to be as good as the first. . .Within society, the young generation should be risk-taking and innovative.  In Japan they are just afraid.”  -- Machiko Osawa, economics professor