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16 january 2012

The Japanese diamond and retail industries have provided evidence this year of a turnaround in sales despite the problems the country is facing after the earthquake, Antwerp Facets says in an article posted at www.antwerpfacetsonline.be on December 21, 2011. In the latest figures available, Japanese imports of polished diamonds jumped 24 percent on the year in financial terms in October due to higher prices. The country's imports of polished goods totalled $92 million for the month, according to Finance Ministry data.

There was a 26-percent drop to 203,896 carats, while the average price per carat of the polished diamonds surged 67 percent on the year to $450. Meanwhile, for the January-October period, polished imports increased by 17 percent to $685 million, but dropped 14 percent in volume to 1.76 million carats.

In the diamond business, sales have remained moderately strong, said Henri Boekman of Grunberger Diamonds, which has sold Ideal Cut diamonds to Japan for the past six years. "One of the strengths of the Japanese people is that they look for practical solutions. The culture of buying diamond jewellery as a way of celebrating a long-term commitment has not gone away. It will continue, perhaps at a lower rate, due to the rebuilding efforts, but it will continue."

Meanwhile, figures released this week appear to indicate that Japan’s department-store sales may be bottoming out. Retailers appear to be receiving a boost from consumers who are increasing their spending.

Sales fell 1.9 percent in November from the same month a year earlier, the Japan Department Store Association (JDSA) said, while the three-month moving average was a 1.6 percent drop, little changed from the August-October period. Demand has been “relatively solid,” the group said.

Consumer spending has picked up speed in the current holiday season, the busiest time of the year for retailers, with J Front Retailing Co., the nation’s second-largest department-store operator, reporting solid sales, while Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd.’s flagship store in central Tokyo has posted a 6.4 percent rise in sales in November, the third straight monthly increase.

“I wouldn’t say the spending is keeping the recovery intact, but it’s definitely providing support for an economy that faces growing downside risks from overseas,” said Hiroyuki Fujiwara, a senior analyst at Nippon Research Institute in Tokyo, which specializes in consumer and corporate behaviour and conducts research for the government, told Bloomberg News.

Sales in Sendai, a northeastern city hit hard by the earthquake in March, jumped 11 percent from the same period a year ago while demand in Osaka, Japan’s second-largest metropolitan area, rose 0.4 percent. The decline in the three- month moving average of nationwide sales compares with 1.5 percent in the previous period, a 0.1 percentage point deterioration that was the smallest since June-August, the group said.

Meanwhile, the Topix Retail Trade Index has risen 2.7 percent in the past six months. Retail sales rose a more-than-estimated 1.9 percent in October from a year earlier, in the biggest increase since August 2010. The rise in retail sales in December, Japan’s busiest shopping month, could give the world’s third-biggest economy a boost at a time when the country's exports have been hit by Europe’s debt crisis and the strength of the yen against the dollar.

December shopping accounts for 10 percent of annual retail sales in Japan, according to government data. Unlike in the United States, where retailers count on Christmas to give a boost to end-of-year shopping, Japanese buying typically revolves around New Year’s and traditional foods used to celebrate the period.

Evidence of the strength of the Japanese diamond jewellery industry is provided with the decision this year of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to establish a laboratory in the country in 2012. GIA President and CEO Donna Baker said the decision was reached following widespread consultations with members of the trade in Japan. “We are excited to develop a presence in Japan,” she said. “Japan, together with India and China, are the world’s leading diamond markets after the United States. The GIA’s aim is to promote the public trust in gems and jewellery and we will do everything within our means to carry this mission forward in Japan and to assist the Japanese diamond community in furthering these goals.”

Financial results from leading high-end jewellery retailers would also appear to provide evidence of healthy sales in the Japanese market. Harry Winston Diamond Corp said in its third quarter report that sales were up strongly in Japan, with sales of $53.3 million showing an increase of 25 percent at actual exchange rates and by 13 percent on a constant exchange rate basis over the same period of last year. Meanwhile, Tiffany & Co. reported a 12-percent rise in sales in Japan in the third quarter.

In Antwerp, an executive at a leading diamond manufacturer said he was hopeful that the Japanese would continue the recovery seen this year. "We have a lot of experience with the Japanese market and the way the country does business. We hope that sales will rise and help reduce the pressure from the poor state of sales in Europe. Looking at the state of the Japanese economy, you would not necessarily be hopeful, but as with the United States sales are reasonable even though the economy overall is not in a great situation," he said.

The Japanese economy has been unable to shake off two decades of stagnation. The country suffers from deflation, where consumers do not buy today because prices are likely to be lower in the future. In addition, the economy is suffering from an aging population, a decline in innovation, and falling productivity.

Despite the government's efforts to pump vast amounts of cash into the economy, bank recapitalizations and widespread spending programmes, they have largely failed to revive the world’s third-largest economy. And the outlook would appear to be tough, with confidence at major manufacturers falling over the last quarter according to the Bank of Japan's "tankan" survey of business sentiment dropped to minus 4. The figure represents the percentage of companies saying business conditions are good minus those saying conditions are unfavourable.

The rise of the yen to record highs this year has led to further problems, with some manufacturers opting to move operations out of Japan to lower-cost manufacturing countries, causing the Japanese premier and his finance minister to pledge more proactive steps to avoid a "hollowing" out of Japan's economy.

Moreover, Japan's public debts are already twice the size of its $5 trillion economy, far beyond the levels of debt that has brought about Europe's sovereign debt crisis. Economists say that a strong reduction in welfare spending must be carried out as it accounts for around 30 percent of the state budget and is growing every year. Global ratings agencies Standard & Poor's and Fitch threatened Japan earlier this year with a downgrade if the economic issues were not addressed. As a result, the government has presented a fourth supplementary budget, the first time since 1947, in the depths of the post-World War ll austerity regime, that the Japanese government has drafted a fourth budget.

Despite all this, Japan’s major trump card could be its proximity to China, and the fact that it is firmly located in the hemisphere which is morphing into the world’s most powerful economic region. The government of Japan, South Korea and China currently are mulling over the framework for a multi-lateral free trade agreement, and one of the strongest proponents of the move is China.

"China, Japan and South Korea are all important countries in East Asia but with different international divisions of labour," said Shen Danyang, the spokesman for China's Ministry of Commerce, at a briefing in Beijing last Thursday. “A free trade zone among the three countries, if established as soon as possible, would benefit the economic development of all through developing trade and investment potential in East Asia."

Japan, for several decades the world’s second-largest consumer market for diamonds behind the United States, was overtaken by China in 2010. The strength of the Japanese diamond jewellery market was largely the result of the work carried out by De Beers during the 1970s, where it implanted the concept of diamonds being a symbol of love and commitment. It created a large market for engagement rings in Japan which had not existed previously. By the 1990s, 77 percent of all Japanese brides were receiving engagement rings, and about three-quarters of those rings were set with diamonds.