Photo:shankas s. on Flickr

Grabbing a Bargain: How to Survive Japan’s January Sales

As a child, I remember one of the early highlights of the year was the opportunity for cheap toys, video games and new clothes that came with the January sales.

It was always really satisfying when you got a new games console for Christmas and then, just a matter of 10 days or so later, you could find previously expensive games at up to 50% off last year’s price.

Photo: Takayuki Miki (三木貴幸) on Flickr

Like Scotland, Japan too has got into the spirit of the “January Sales” in recent years. However, as with all of the things that give Japan its unique, quirky charm, sales here are done just a little differently from what we may know of back in Europe or the US.

One of the big differences is in the timing. Whilst in the UK many stores have now brought their sales forward to Boxing Day, the Day immediately after Christmas, in Japan the sales begin much later.

Unlike much of the west which has already fully transitioned to the notion of a 21st century, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, society, one of Japan’s quaint little charms, or irritations depending on how you look at it, is the way in which holidays here are still somewhat sacred. Government buildings, banks, and many shops go into a state of shutdown from December 28th and do not resume full operation until the second week in January. Of course progress has been made in recent years. For example, when I first arrived in Japan in 2006 I was encouraged to withdraw all my money for the holiday period on Christmas Day, as ATMs in a number of areas went into a state of total shutdown thereafter and stayed as such until about January 5th. Thankfully, in all but the very most rural of regions, this is no longer the case.

Photo: Shoko Muraguchi on Flickr

Anyway, back on topic. The sales in Japan will get into full swing at the end of the holidays, so from about January 6th or 7th onwards.

Again, in a subtle difference, rather than offering huge discounts on specific items, shops tend to offer more general discounts across the board. For example, clothing stores such as Uniqlo and such like tend to discount their entire autumn and winter range at this time. Infact, I the case of uniqlo this is not just a New Year thing. They tend to have such a sale every 3 or 4 months, to clear the decks, as it were, and bring in the new seasonal range.

January can also be a good time to upgrade your personal electronics. These days, the likes of computers, smartphones, tablets and even music systems also seem to have adopted a consistent, seasonal cycle in Japan.

Photo: double-h_by_phone on Flickr

With new phones and tablets due to come to the market in late March or early April, January or February is usually a good time to make a big saving on that new model phone that you want. As with all things technological these days, if you’re not a hipster or an Apple cultist, and don’t mind being about 6 to 9 months behind the curve, then you can save even more by buying last season’s model now.

Sometimes, as is often the case when non-English speaking Japanese corporate types decide it would be “cool and trendy” to use English in their marketing campaigns, the January sales can also throw up some real comedy gold.

Perhaps most infamous was the case of one Osaka department store back in 2012.

Plastered all across the full length and breadth of the multi-level store in Osaka’s trendy Shinsaibashi district was English signage for their New Year sale. Unfortunately English clearly was not the marketing team’s strong point as the banners proudly welcomed customers young and old to their “F**kin’ Sale”!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have self-censored here for the sake of keeping this a family friendly blog, but you aren’t mistaken. You didn’t read it wrong. A major department store in Osaka dropped the “F” bomb, not once, not twice, but literally hundreds of times all across their store.

If you don’t believe me, google it, but I accept no responsibility for whatever other results you may find!

And things stayed that way for several weeks before an angry American tourist, who was visiting with her children pointed out the folly of their ways. However, with the almost daily liberties these overzealous marketers continue to take with the English language, a reoccurrence of such a sight can never be too far away.

Funnily enough, it’s not only shops that get in on the sales fever these days. In the age of the internet, Japan’s online retailers are joining the fun too.

Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr

Of course anyone who has ever shopped online before will be aware of the global, tax-dodging, behemoth that is Amazon. But in Japan, it is local companies like Rakuten that offer the best bargains at this time of year. Perhaps more so in online wholesalers than in actual physical shops these days, there is a huge tendency to overbuy products prior to the Christmas rush. This is also the case in Japan. As always, Rakuten and Amazon’s poor grasp of the levels of customer demand can work to one’s advantage, provided you don’t mind waiting until 2 or 3 weeks after Christmas to buy that much sought after product.

Also, one final, and perhaps most important footnote on all of this. For all its occasional flaws, Japan remains one of the most polite and welcoming nations on earth. Whatever the occasion and whatever your intended purchase may be, you are assured of being treated like royalty throughout. There is not and hopefully never will be anything like the sick and twisted monument to the very worst of capitalism that is Black Friday in Japan. That is something for which I will always be grateful.

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