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Bananas and Tents Surprise Japan’s COVID-hit Economy

Has the pandemic changed how people spend their time? Experts wonder, as dumbbells, freezers and other unexpected items strongly outperform traditional imports.

Shutaro Hayashi

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It turns out that Japan’s imports reflect the surprise of the COVID-19 pandemic, with items like bananas and freezers that were rather inconspicuous until recently, successively registering record highs in 2020. 

This news comes against the background of a surge in “cocoon consumption,” the result of people staying at home instead of enjoying time out. Moreover, the paradigm shift in consumer activities is likely to continue this year, with no signs of an end to pandemic driven economic constraints.

According to trade statistics released by the Ministry of Finance, the value of bananas imported from January to November in 2020 stood at about 97.69 billion JPY ($941.4 million USD), up 0.5% from the same period a year before. This year, there is a high possibility of banana imports breaking the record for a second straight year, despite the overall shrinkage of trade due to the COVID-19 crisis, the ministry said.

Officials at Tokyo Customs, who have jurisdiction over the Port of Tokyo which has both the highest volume and value of imported bananas among ports in Japan, say bananas have become increasingly popular. The reason, the officials surmise, is that bananas “can provide a suitable quick light meal”. They also note that health-consciousness may be on the rise as people spend longer hours at home due to the temporary closure of schools and telework.

The phenomenon is not limited to bananas. In the January to November period last year, the import of training gear such as dumbbells surpassed the figure for the whole of 2019, when dumbbell imports had registered a record high. The rise can be attributed to awareness of the need to “make up for a lack of regular activities” while refraining from outings due to the pandemic, according to Nagoya Customs. 

Tent imports are also seen hitting record highs as the equipment is put to use for leisurely enjoying the outdoors and avoiding the “three Cs”: closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places and close-contact settings. The growing popularity may have something to do with camp-themed dramas and anime, along with camping videos by popular internet influencers, says an official at Osaka Customs.

The anime series Yuru-kyan (laid-back camping) features the daily lives of high school girls enjoying camping. In addition, the series features scenes on how to enjoy “solo camping,” or camping alone, which has become a hot topic in the COVID-19 era. 

Upright freezersーmainly for household useーprovide another surprise, as people take more of their meals at home. Freezer imports skyrocketed for the 11-month period through November 2020, exceeding the record high set for the whole 12 months of 2019. The import of horizontal freezers for professional use, which are necessary for developing and storing COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutic drugs, is expected to increase from now on.

Analyzing the current domestic economy, chief economist Koichi Fujishiro at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute says that cash has flowed into these consumer goods, while goods and services such as tourism, drinking and eating out have seen a sharp decrease due to COVID-19 restraints. In other words, he says, the recent shift away from the so-called consumption of tangible things to experience-based consumption seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, has reversed. Fujishiro expects the trend to continue until the pandemic subsides.     

It is not a bad thing to see the increase in special procurements due to COVID-19, of course. However, three years of business deterioration due to a decline in domestic demand for goods and services, which the government envisions as the time it will take to see an uptick in business confidence, would end up being as slippery as the peel of a banana. 

(Read the original report here , in Japanese.) 

Author: Shutaro Hayashi