Focus on home life resonates with many
By Yuri Kageyama
TOKYO Martha Stewart may have found the perfect place to market her goods, her style and herself in Japan, a nation where pristine decorating is a devotion for a huge middle class and traditional womanly virtues are still an unabashed norm.
Chikako Honda, who owns Martha Stewart Everyday brand plates and watches Stewart's cooking show on Japanese cable TV, was quick to brush off the questions of whether Stewart was acting on inside information when she sold ImClone shares in December. Stewart has said the sale was lawful.
"The scandal is irrelevant," said Honda, a 38-year-old housewife. "I love her sensibilities and tastes. She has her own world, and I wish I could create that for myself, too."
Products carrying Stewart's name have been selling since last fall at supermarkets run by major retailer Seiyu, as well as at a specialty store in downtown Tokyo. They have raked in $30 million in sales in just the first half-year.
Seiyu is expecting $133 million in sales this fiscal year and is planning to open another specialty store in Tokyo this fall.
The true potential remains unclear: Most Japanese have never heard of Stewart, and the appeal of Martha wares remains limited to an elite few who have larger homes, according to Yasuyuki Sasaki, retail analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo.
Most Japanese houses are tiny, offering not much space for housewares.
"So what if you have a fancy cake stand? Is there room to put that anywhere in a Japanese kitchen?" Sasaki said. "It's going to be an uphill business."
Also, marketing around a charismatic figure is relatively rare in Japan, a culture that favors conformity and harmony over stardom.
Athletes like major league outfielder Ichiro are a growing exception, even in Japan, but they generally target youngsters and fall short of the massive marketing appeal of their American counterparts such as Michael Jordan.
Japan's closest Stewart equivalent is Harumi Kurihara, who has her own restaurants in five Japanese cities and sells a line of cups and plates under her brand. But Kurihara has attracted only a niche following and her business is a fraction of Stewart's massive media empire.
Still, Japanese culture would seem a natural match for Stewart.
Her persona and values often end up the subject of parody in the West partly because of the resentment they conjure among women with less domesticated interests.
In Japan, where a radish must be chiseled into a delicate flower in gourmet recipes, Stewart's obsession with stylish food fits easily. Her most elaborate recipes seem simply practical.
The role of housewife is key in this male-dominated culture. Although half of Japanese women now hold jobs, nearly 40 percent are part-time workers.
A recent government survey found that about 40 percent of Japanese women believe they should quit their jobs until the children grow up.
"For Japanese, Martha Stewart comes off a bit like Princess Diana," said Seiyu general manager Tomoko Matsuoka. "I think Japanese people like foreign women like that."