Made in Japan: Cool but expensive

Japanese manufacturers target niche sectors in a bid to revive the Made in Japan tag

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Its designer calls it the vehicle of the future: an electric motorbike with an emphasis on design.

It is proudly Made in Japan, using the best components that the country boasts of.

"It's been my childhood dream to create a bike like this," says 42-year-old former Toyota Motor designer Kota Nezu.

"But especially after the earthquake last March, I wanted to revive the Made in Japan spirit."

It took just over two months after the country's worst natural disaster in living memory for Mr Nezu to finish his design.

He then brought his sketch to Masaki Nakamura who has been making customised bikes for 20 years in Tokyo's neighbouring prefecture Chiba.

It is at Mr Nakamura's small bike shop where the bike - Zecoo - was born.

"I was so excited when I saw his sketch and thought I had to make it," he tells the BBC.

Start Quote

Kota Nezu

It is very difficult to compete with China when it comes to mass produced items due to higher costs of labour here”

End Quote Kota Nezu Designer of Zecoo electric motorbike

The two men asked their friends and acquaintances in the industry to join them. Today, there are five core members who are supported by others.

"We are all like teenage boys who love motorbikes," they laugh.

Yen factor

But Japanese industry experts are expensive to hire so the Made in Japan label comes at a cost.

That means that when the first Zecoo bike hits the road, it will be sold for 6 to 7 million yen or almost $90,000 (£55,000).

And it is not just niche businesses that are having to deal with rising costs.

Even those which make products targeted at the mass market, high cost of labour is proving a big challenge.

To make things even harder, companies which export their products have been hit by the strong yen which makes them less competitive abroad.

The Japanese currency has risen more than 6% against the US dollar since April last year.

And despite repeated interventions by the authorities in the currency markets to weaken the yen, it continues to remains at a level which exporters find unbearable.

Hurt by a slowing global demand and a rising domestic currency, Japanese firms are looking at ways to revive their businesses.

Katsuyuki Kasahara is one of many victims.

He owns a factory in Sumida ward of Tokyo and makes all kinds of metallic components.

"Most of our products are used in machineries that are exported so we are affected by the global downturn and the strong yen," Mr Kasahara tells the BBC at his factory.

Soon after the global financial crisis, his orders halved.

Some of his clients even shifted their operations abroad to produce their machineries overseas, instead of exporting them from Japan.

"I could no longer rely on our main business for profits and that's why I've decided to create something original," Mr Kasahara says.

That something is a small tong that fits in your palm.

And it is just not a new product that he has come up with - he is also looking to clients at home rather that abroad.

"Our neighbourhood is known for cherry blossom viewing parties so I want picnic-goers to use it to share their salad."

'Unique and different'

From the $40 salad tong to the $90,000 electric motorbike, their makers are betting on consumers who appreciate the Made in Japan quality.

Start Quote

There are people who are still willing to spend money on hobbies and they want something unique and different like Zecoo”

End Quote Masaki Nakamura Bike shop owner

Mr Kasaraha has been getting a lot of media attention in Japan as a small business which has found a creative way to survive the downturn.

And even the top priced Zecoo bike is attracting interests from wealthy customers - at home and abroad - even before it is officially available after it was showcased at events.

"I think Japan should focus on making things like this," says its designer Kota Nezu.

"It is very difficult to compete with China when it comes to mass produced items due to the higher cost of labour here."

The bike industry has been "in decline" according to its maker Mr Nakamura and "sales are now a 10th of what it used to be 20 years ago."

They say they are trying to deal with the downturn by targeting a niche market.

"There are people who are still willing to spend money on hobbies and they want something unique and different like Zecoo," says Mr Nakamura.

Of course, not everyone can come up with original hit products.

But these projects may hold a valuable lesson for the rest of corporate Japan.

Instead of looking to go cheap, find the country's most creative ideas and make them a reality by using the skills that are still hard to find outside of Japan.

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