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Used Stuff in Japan

The market for used goods is something that is very different in Japan than in the United States and most other countries.

Goods in Japan tend to be high-end and high quality, and are often more expensive than similar items in other parts of the world.  On the flip side, Japanese people tend to take very good care of their possessions, and yet used items sell for much less than new items - even when they are still in like new condition.  What this means for you the reader, is that Japan is a buyer's market as far as used stuff goes.  In fact, I recommend that before you buy anything new, you check to see if you can find it used first.  You may be surprised how much cheaper it is used.

But why is used stuff so cheap?
First of all, the price of used goods is typically based on many factors.  If the items is still a current model, then the current new selling price will be a factor.  If not, then the original selling price will be one factor.  The cost to manufacture the item would create a price floor, unless the market is flooded with newer items and there are no buyers for the older items.  Obviously the condition and age of the item will be relevant as well.

So let's get to some concrete examples.  Cell phones are the perfect example.  Most of the Japanese carriers release seasonal models four times per year.  That's right, new models every Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer.  Believe it or not, there are some people who upgrade every single time.  Others only every six months, or once per year or so.  What this does mean, though, is that there will be a lot of 3 month old phones for sale at any point in time from people who just upgraded.  There will be more and more phones for sale at the 6 and 9 month mark, etc.  A high end smart phone costs USD $800 (without rebate), so the phone carriers and manufacturers are making a tidy profit even if the phones aren't cheap to manufacture.  A 3 month old phone would probably cost almost as much to manufacture today as it did 3 months ago, but since the new ones are the same price, the price will be driven down, even for new-in-box items.  What's more, like a new car that loses 50% of its sticker value the second you drive it out of the lot, even the newest phone loses a lot of it's value as soon as you open the box.  Combine that with the fact that anyone who cares already has the absolute newest phone, and you can see why nobody is willing to pay you even 50% of what you paid for your shiny phone just 3 months ago.  Bear in mind that things like phones are also seen as fashion trends or status symbols by a lot of people.  Japan in general has a "keeping up with the Jones" mentality about a lot of things, and many people do have the disposable income to spend on the latest gadget.  As a case in point, the day that the iPad came out, I saw quite a lot of people playing with them on the train.  The kind of person who buys an iPad the day it comes out isn't going to even want your 3 month old phone, and the type who is using a 2 year old phone is also not going to pay much for your old phone either.

It's not just phones either.  Minidisc players (once popular in Japan) were the came way.  The newest Sony MD player used to be $350, while a new last generation one would be $200 or less.  You would be lucky to get $100 for a recent model in like new condition.

Part of what drives this cycle is the "evil" way that Japanese manufacturers tent to improve the specs just a little bit with each new model, which they release very often, and people always want the latest new features.  Japanese consumers also tent to want absolute top quality, even in things they will toss in a few months or a year or so - which drives up prices for new goods.  

Televisions are another prime example.  Japanese manufacturers make some of the best displays in the world.  Every few months they improve their technology, and even then they send the units that aren't absolutely perfect for sale overseas to sell at cheaper prices to foreign consumers who will never notice the difference - and jack up domestic prices in the process.  Even after a particular product has been around for a while, instead of dropping the prices like you would see in other countries, they add more features or use a newer (and more expensive) technology.  

For example, the going pice for a new 22 inch Sharp LCD television in late 2008 was over $700.  A lightly used 42 inch version of the same model was available at the same time for about the same price.  This wasn't on some site like Craigslist, but in retail stores, checked, confirmed legitimate, and offered with a warranty.  

Laptops that sell for $1000 new are also available in used by like new condition for $600 or less.  Microwaves that cost $400 or more are available for half price - and ones that are a few models old are $50 or less.  

Another reason that used items sell for so cheap is that it costs significant money to get rid things you don't want.  You can't just throw a microwave in the trash, you have to pay $50 or more to get it picked up - so by giving it away, you save $50 already.  If you can sell it for $25, then you are $75 ahead.

All of this means that if you are in the market for anything electronic, or any furniture, you should seriously take a look at the availability of what you want on the used market.  Jewelry, clothes, and other items such as purses are also available used, but your milage will vary.  In particular, brand name clothes, while also sold in impeccable condition for a fraction of what they cost new, are still very expensive.  For example, a $2000 suit may be available for $1000 - if they have it in your size.  You won't find so many Goodwill style places selling ratty old clothes for $0.25, though.  If you are interested in cheaper/junkier items, you can check out the periodic flea markets in Shinagawa, Suidobashi, etc.

So where to buy all this stuff?
Besides the usual web sites, for electronics  you can check the large chains and smaller stores, especially in Akihabara.  For furniture, appliances, jewelry, and clothes, there are so called "recycle shops" of different types located at various places.  You will often find smaller shops that sell purses, women's clothes, and jewelry even in smaller towns.  The appliance shops are usually larger and often located in major cities.  For larger items, another advantage of buying from larger well known chain stores is that they will usually deliver your purchases for a small fee - and sometimes for free.  

Honestly, if you are just moving to Japan or so an unfurnished apartment, it just doesn't make sense to head out to Yodobashi or Big camera and buy all new washing machines, TVs, etc.  You will be paying at least twice what you have to with only intangible advantages.  

The Selling Side
So the situation is great for buyers - but what about sellers?  Not so great.  Particularly for bulkier items, you will have to pay to have them hauled away, so you will be lucky to get anything for them.  You may be lucky enough to sell smaller, more valuable items for a significant fraction of their original value if they are less than 2 - 3 years old, and in like new condition - but don't be surised if you only get $100 for the phone you paid $800 for only 6 months ago, or you can only fetch $300 for your brand new Macbook Air.  This is because the shops that sell used goods obviously have to buy them at even less than they sell them for to ensure a profit.  

But wait, there's more!  Let's say you are moving to a smaller apartment and that nice big leather couch you bought for $2000 just 6 months ago won't fit.  Maybe you just can't bear the thought of paying to throw it out, and you aren't satisfied with the $200 the recycle shop asked you for it - then what?  Well, if you decide that you want to stash it somewhere until you move again and none of your friends has the space, your best option is a rental storage locker, called "trunk rooms" in Japan.  The problem is, though, these are very expensive.  If you have to pay $100 per month to keep your couch somewhere - how long will it be worth it?  Of course, many of your friends probably have the same problems too.  I have been absolutely inundated with offers for free TVs, etc., as people upgrade.  

You might say "I'll just sell it online!", but remember that any if not most Japanese people are already uncomfortable about buying something used to begin with, so if they do, they will prefer to buy it from a reputable shop rather than some web site where scams and spam are the norm.  Many of the prices foreign people ask for on these web sites are totally unrealistic, since they don't really know the local situation and going prices.