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U.S. Furniture Is Building a Fine Reputation for Itself Among Japanese

March 02, 1997|ELIZABETH LAZAROWITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Kenichi Miyazaki and his wife, Kaori, were so impressed by the furniture they saw on trips to the United States that when they rebuilt their home last year, they were determined to fill it with U.S. imports.

"We picked American furniture both for its design and the fact that it's well-made," said Kenichi, 47, adding that he really likes its "generous size."

Kaori, 44, said she enjoys "the comfortable feel."

Japanese consumers used to be as wary of purchasing U.S. furniture as they were of buying American cars, which until recently had a poor reputation in Japan.

But in the last few years, as barriers to consumer imports have fallen, the popularity of U.S. furniture has soared. It is winning a reputation as being sturdy, reasonably priced and fashionable.

Boosted by the changing attitudes of Japanese consumers and U.S. manufacturers alike, American furniture sales here leaped to $127 million in 1995 from $59 million in 1991, according to the Japan Furniture Industry International Development Assn. Imported furniture flooding into Japan from all over the world has captured 10% of the market.

Many American furniture companies have benefited by tailoring their products to Japanese tastes and taking into consideration the size of Japanese homes and physiques. U.S.-made furniture is also more available than ever before. Growing numbers of firms such as Otsuka Kagu Ltd.--which runs a huge Tokyo store with seemingly endless rows of furniture--have built their businesses around discount imported furniture.

The trend is also driven by fundamental changes in the typical Japanese lifestyle. Gone are the days when all Japanese regularly sat on flat cushions and slept on futons set on tatami, the woven straw mat flooring of traditional homes.

Most newly built Japanese homes today have Western-style living rooms and dining areas, although they also usually have at least one tatami-floored room that serves as a link to traditional culture.

Indeed, Japan is importing entire houses, so to speak--filling a growing niche for Westernized construction in the so-called 2-by-4 style (as in the lumber) of North American housing. Sales of such "imported homes"--usually made of North American lumber precut to size--have nearly doubled annually for the last three years, to 11,000 sold in 1996.

For the Miyazakis, U.S. furniture was crucial. It was the key to getting the interior look they wanted--one they thought would match Kaori's hobby, making reproductions of Western-style antique dolls.

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So instead of building the house and buying furniture to fit, they ordered all the beds, tables, chairs, sofas and cabinets first, then built a mostly American-style house to fit around them. The new three-story structure replaced a traditional Japanese-style house.

One of the best things about her new home, Kaori Miyazaki said, is the large American-made dining room table on the second floor.

Her friends "come up the stairs and they see this big table," she said. "They all say: 'Wow! I'm so jealous!' "

In the 1980s, when Japan was basking in economic prosperity, American furniture was relatively unknown, and opulent European furniture was coveted as a status symbol, according to Takashi Sukegawa of the Japan External Trade Organization. But U.S. imports began to carve out a niche in 1989, when Japan lifted tariffs on furniture to help ease its burgeoning trade imbalance with the United States.

"Now [U.S. imports] are becoming much more popular because many importers are introducing new products of very good quality and reasonable price," Sukegawa said.

By 1989, the Japanese market loomed as an attractive target because "we felt there was a demand for the American lifestyle within the home," said Stephen T. Wise, president of Los Angeles-based California Furniture Exports. "But it has taken a long time to be accepted."

Part of the problem was size. In a country where the average living space per resident is less than half that of the United States, a traditional American sofa might engulf an entire room--if it fit through the door. Many American companies began to make slightly smaller furniture. The seating height of a couch, for example, would be reduced by an inch, then its length and depth shortened proportionately. Firms also added features that are standard in Japanese furniture, such as extra holes for adjusting the levels of shelves in glass-door cupboards.

Wise's firm, which represents 16 furniture makers, began offering the option of shipping products from different companies together, thereby not only cutting transportation costs but also allowing retailers with little storage space to stock a larger variety of furniture.

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