Terrie's Take: 300,000 Pedometer Experiment, Japan as a Brand, and Smartphone Zombies!

Terrie’s Take is a selection of Japan-centric news collected and collated by long-time resident and media business professional Terrie Lloyd. AkihabaraNews is pleased to present Terrie’s learned perspective; we all could use another take on the news - here’s Terrie’s:

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Terrie’s Take on November 17, 2014


  • 300,000 Pedometers and Yokohama, a Massive Health Experiment


  • Game developer Gumi to do monster IPO
  • Japan has strongest country brand in 2014
  • Abe to call a snap election for December
  • Actual numbers on smartphone zombies
  • Real story, 1% of companies generate 80% of gains

300,000 Pedometers and Yokohama, a Massive Health Experiment
Did you know that 50% of healthcare spending in Japan is on people 65 and over? While this fact is not surprising given that the nation is aging so rapidly, it does stimulate the debate on whether it is fair that so many are making so little contribution to supporting those costs. Up until now, the thinking has been that this age group has worked hard and deserve their health benefits, but in the light of an impending health system blow out, local authorities around the country are looking for ways to get things under control again.

One of the easiest ways to reduce medical costs for the elderly, as proven in studies around the world, is to increase the physical fitness of the target population. Fitter elderly people have better quality of life, better mental attitude, decreased and lower severity of ordinary diseases, and lower incidence of injuries.

The problem is that getting your population to stay fit is not that easy. For example, the current national average for daily walking by seniors in Japan is just 500 meters a day, mostly consisting of their moving around the house. Given that this is a national average, if you subtract the hardy farmers of Japan's interior, then you're talking about a lot of very sedentary urban dwellers doing even less. OK, the average Japanese old person is probably still in better shape than their western peers, where the car is just a garage away, but still, lack of exercise means higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, depression, and the lower body inflexibility that contributes to falls and other accidents.

Yokohama is a classic aging community. This city of 3.67m people is expecting to have an incredible 1/3 of its population aged 75 years or older in 2025, just ten years away. The city is taking the aging situation seriously, installing elevators at all railway stations, converting the bus fleet to low-floor buses (so-called "non-step" buses), reconstructing citywide barrier-free public facilities, building more group homes for those with dementia and increasing home-help services for those who don't, commissioning more emergency medical care centers, and so far attracting six new privately run hospitals.

All-in-all, it's pretty impressive.

But the thing that has attracted our attention, because of the financial and business implications, is a wellness project called Yokohama Walking Point, which started this month. Walking Point is basically a "big-systems" walking challenge, and comes complete with rewards, donation incentives, interesting places to walk to and view, networked pedometers, and most importantly smartphone-viewable big data that lets participants compete against others. It's an amazingly well integrated program and one that we think will be carefully watched by other major cities in Japan and overseas in the coming years.

The city is targeting all residents over 40 years old. It signs them up and hands out an Omron-made pedometer, which generates the all-important online data. We haven't seen the system in operation (we don't live in Yokohama), but the idea of having people compete against their cohort is a good one. Not only are the Japanese taught to be competitive (a densely packed population will do that to you), they also like to compare notes with their neighbors over the back fence anyway, and this aspect will cause positive peer-pressure as they egg each other on.

http://www.city.yokohama.lg.jp/lang/koyoko/789/en.html (English overview)
http://enjoy-walking.city.yokohama.lg.jp/walkingpoint/ (Japanese complete site)

The incentives are also interesting and substantial. For example, each participant who exceeds the target will cause the city to donate JPY200,000 to the UN World Food Program (WFP). This is a nice combination of reward and altruism that will stimulate people through the feel-good factor, without introducing concerns of fraud. That said, there does appear to be a secondary reward system, where 1,000 prizes are up for grabs by quarterly lottery to those who have reached a minimum total of steps during the period -- adds to the fun, we suppose.

The city had originally budgeted for 50,000 sign-ups by the end of this fiscal year, with a target of signing up 300,000 people by the end of 2017. However, the project has really captured the public's imagination, and by October they had already hit the 50,000 target, so now they have upped the March 2015 target to 80,000. Maybe they will wind up with 500,000 participants? If so, that will mean about a quarter of the population over 40 will be walking to a fitness target -- a fantastic opportunity to study health effects and reduction of health spending.

This is also a great commercial opportunity for Omron and its pedometers, and other companies providing the big-data analytics. Pedometers are just the start of what can be done in mass studies. Whether in this project or some similar effort conducted elsewhere in Japan, we are expecting the imminent arrival of Toray's new "Hitoe" smart fabrics, which, in a project they are doing in conjunction with NTT DoCoMo, will monitor vital signs and give users access to the results on their cell phone. The new fabric is made of nanofibers coated with conductive resin which can then be connected to a centralized sensor and the smartphone. Better still in odor-sensitive Japan, the fabric is washable...

Anyway, the Yokohama project is of course not the first mass fitness=health trial in the world. A recent study done on a Health Enhancement and Pedometer-determined Ambulatory (HEPA) project in Hong Kong found that over just ten weeks, the 205 elderly participants increased their average number of steps per day by 36%, from 6,591 to 8,934. During that time, they had notably better lower and upper body strength, better aerobic capacity, and better mental health. A welcome side effect was that a social support network formed which helped participants enjoy their neighborhoods and lives more.

We imagine that the Yokohama Walking Point project will reveal something similar. It's interesting to see that so far no one in either Hong Kong or Yokohama has been publicly concerned about the big-brother aspect of these projects, which we previously thought would inhibit many people from signing up. Perhaps this age group is more trusting, or perhaps they simply understand that giving up some privacy is the price you pay to keep the system running. Either way, their mass participation will make it a lot easier for central planners to improve health efficiencies. As a result, we expect to see a lot more of these projects take place in Japan over the next 5 years.

Game developer Gumi to do monster IPO
One of the biggest game development companies you never heard of is based in Nishi Shinjuku and earns around half of its JPY100bn in revenue in the USA. Gumi is best known for the smartphone game Brave Frontier, and has tapped a ready market of users outside Japan even as the domestic market shrinks. The company says it will list for around JPY10bn. It looks like the smart money has known for a while that Gumi was something special: JAFCO, GREE, Gree, Shinsei (bank), NTT DoCoMo, and Zynga are all shareholders. (Source: TT commentary from techcrunch.com, Nov 14, 2014) - http://tcrn.ch/1xKxhQQ

Japan has strongest country brand in 2014
In what is a surprise to many of us, Japan has been selected by the PR company FutureBrand as the country with the strongest brand. FutureBrand surveyed 2,530 frequent international travellers about experiences that the company uses to define national brand value. Those questions included perceptions about the quality of products made, whether the respondents would like to live there, quality of infrastructure, history, culture, and attractiveness as a tourist destination. (Source: TT commentary from forbes.com, Nov 12, 2014) - http://onforb.es/1A2Eiip

Abe to call a snap election for December
Despite denials from senior LDP handlers, the odds are that PM Shinzo Abe will call a snap election for December. It appears that Abe feels he needs a strong electoral mandate so that his party can push through the second increase in consumption tax late next year (well, maybe sometime in the next 3 years anyway). ***Ed: Lots of speculation as to why Abe is calling the election now. Our take is that the LDP realizes that things could get a lot worse economically for the common man (i.e., a majority of voters), and for them to stay the current course of tax increases means that it is more prudent to get reelected now, a virtual shoe-in, and get to run the country for another 4 years through the turmoil that is still ahead.** (Source: TT commentary from ft.com, Nov 13, 2014) - http://on.ft.com/1EMht0k

Actual numbers on smartphone zombies
We've run news earlier about the problems of zombie phone users who are so locked into playing on their smartphones that they are oblivious to everything around them, including cars, bikes, and other pedestrians. Now the Tokyo Fire Department has reported that in the five years between 2009 to 2013, 122 people were involved in traffic accidents serious enough to warrant ambulances. NTT DoCoMo did a study recently where it found that if 1,500 phone users all went into so-called "zombie" mode and kept walking while looking at their screens, their field of vision is reduced to just 5% of normal and this would cause something like 446 collisions, 103 people losing balance, and, OMG, 21 phones being dropped...! ***Ed: Storm in a tea cup? 24 accidents a year doesn't sound too bad to us. Maybe DoCoMo and its Ministry handlers are looking for something to whine about.** (Source: TT commentary from nydailynews.com, Nov 13, 2014) - http://nydn.us/1vjqYEG

Real story, 1% of companies generate 80% of gains
At last someone has done the math and come up with the blazingly obvious, that the current stock market upturn is limited to a lucky (capable) few. According to this article by the Nikkei, although the nation's publicly listed firms collectively reported a 10% increase in profits, in fact, 80% of the increase was accounted for by just 1% of the 3,500 companies on the various stock exchanges. In fact while 280 companies recorded growth of 30% or more, over 300 companies conversely had double-digit drops. If there was a trend to be noted, it was that those companies with more than 30% of their sales abroad collectively enjoyed profit growth of 21%, while domestic-only companies typically suffered. (Source: TT commentary from nikkei.com, Nov 13, 2014) - http://s.nikkei.com/11eIvQJ

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That was Terrie's Take. What about yours? Let us know down below!