Lessons from Japan: Part I

I recently had the opportunity to visit the fine folks of Gamakatsu at their international headquarters in Osaka, Japan, and when I have a chance to visit Japan, I take it. The country, the people, the food and the fishing tackle are all too good to pass up.

Many thanks to Gamakatsu General Manager Toshitaka Fujii and his U.S. team — Shingo Tsuoka, Jeff Roberts, Syd Rives and Kazu Nakamura — for their incredible hospitality. I got to know these great people on my trip, and more than that I got to know their singing voices and musical tastes.

More on that in my special karaoke edition.

The only drawback to visiting Japan is getting there. It is not a short flight, and once you’re there it can be a challenge to get in sync with the clock. Japan Time Is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Time (I live in Florida), so day is night and night is day … at least for a while.

This was not my first trip to Japan. You see, my wife is from Tokyo, and I’ve visited that city on vacation to see her family and friends, do a little sightseeing and generally check out another part of the world.

Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area on the planet. More than 38 million people live there. To give that number a little perspective, New York City and Newark have a combined metro population of just over 18 million, so Tokyo is more than twice as big. Osaka — Japan’s second biggest city — has more than 20 million people, so it’s bigger than New York/Newark, too.

To watch how people coexist and move in such densely populated areas is a study in urban management. To see how they operate retail fishing shops and run a large tackle show is an education in commerce.

Without being able to make a real study of it, I’d say that it’s much tougher to be a tackle retailer in Japan than in America. Yes, there’s a pretty big market — lots and lots of anglers — but retail space is at a serious premium and if you want to be an angler in Japan, you have to really want it. It’s expensive, and unless you’re talking saltwater, the opportunities are harder to find.

Several of the Japanese shops that I’ve been in were two or three or more floors up in large buildings. Space is so precious that many retailers use their ground level for parking and put the shop on top of it. Smart, but expensive.

And the verticality does not end there. In most American tackle shops, products are at eye-level and below. You can generally look over one shelving display to see the next aisle … and the next and the next.

That would be a fatal use of space in Japan. Displays go up so high that products are often out of reach of anyone not currently in the NBA. Each aisle is like a deep trench between walls of gear. It’s sensory overload of the coolest kind. Everywhere you look, there’s fishing tackle. Everywhere.

Japanese tackle shops are remarkably clean and well-lit. There are no dingy corners or grimy or dusty shelves, just row after row of lures and rods and reels and lines and hooks and sinkers and more. You’d probably love it.

But despite the cleanliness and good lighting, I can’t say that Japanese tackle shops are generally better organized than those in the U.S. Instead, I’ll say … they’re different.

Rather than organizing products by type — which they do to some degree — they’re laid out by manufacturer. This means that if you’re looking for a crankbait, you have to walk through most of the aisles rather than just one or two. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of one company’s products, you can generally see them all in one place.

The thing that would surprise an American angler is the way the Japanese shops tend to organize individual products. For example, if you’re checking out the bladed jigs (as I was) and you find the size you’re looking for (in my case, 3/8-ounce), the peg with that size will hold several different colors of that lure — not just one. It made no sense to me until I realized how critical display space is in Japan. The pegs are full because they have no room to spare.

If you’re an American tackle retailer and think you’re making the most of your space, you should take a look at a Japanese shop.

More to come on “Lessons from Japan.”