Wall Street Journal March 26, 1997 Page A-1
By STEVE GLAIN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
KAWAGUCHI LAKE, Japan -- Even for a country that has co-opted such bits of American culture as golf, grunge rock and $400 backpacks, the latest fad to hit Japan is unusual.
The Japanese call it "Bassu Boomu," referring to a growing school of Japanese salarymen, office women and civil servants who are dressing up like American fishermen, buying expensive equipment and casting for bass.
Real American black bass, to boot. It turns out that, years ago, a wealthy Japanese businessman and fishing fanatic imported the fish from the U.S. and dumped them in some lakes. They spread throughout the country and were generally considered pests. Until now.
The Lure of Film
While fishing is nothing new to the country that gave the world sushi, the recent popularity here of the American film "A River Runs Through It" helped transform a quaint diversion into a multimillion dollar fashion statement. Although that movie was about fly-fishing, a sport generally identified with America's Yankee elite, in Japan the craze spread to bass fishing, a sport generally identified with American consumers of chewing tobacco and six-packs.
Yasumasa Horiuchi is one of the new weekend warriors with outboard motors. The 32-year-old engineer stares intently into the clear waters of Kawaguchi Lake while perched in his U.S.-made Ranger bass boat, which is appointed with a 90-horsepower Mercury motor and American Hondex sonic depth-finder. Every few minutes, he jerks at his U.S.-made Fenwick graphite rod, animating his favorite mock-minnow lure to tempt some unsuspecting largemouth bass. He wears a peakbilled baseball cap with "Karil Bait and Tackle," the name of a local fishing shop, stitched in English on the crown. He can explain the comparative merits of his minnows and worms, the way a concert oboist discusses his reeds.
The only thing Mr. Horiuchi can't explain is why he is spending a Sunday morning on a windswept lake in a fishing rig and duds that cost him the equivalent of $5,700. "It's hard to say exactly," says Mr. Horiuchi, who has yet to catch a bass today. "I guess because it's a fad."
Angling for Profits
The most successful anglers in all of this seem to be manufacturers and marketers who are cashing in on the Japanese craving for things uniquely American. Sales of U.S.-made bass fishing accouterments, from boats to bait to apparel, are skyrocketing. "To consumers, bass fishing is equal to America," says Yoshiaki Kuratsune, a spokesman for fishing gear-importer Hartman Co., which has enjoyed sales growth of 45% since 1994.
The volume of foreign rods imported into Japan nearly doubled last year to 16 million. Johshuya Co., one of Japan's biggest fishing-equipment chain stores that carries Ranger boats and Mercury motors, says its sales have risen 60% during the last three years.
At Karil Bait, weekend fishermen are snapping up imported bait and tackle like never before. Among the items that cover the blond pine walls of the ten-by-four-foot shop: simulated "Meathead" worms from Zoom Bait Co. of Bogart, Ga., for 500 yen ($4) per 20-lure pouch.
The mouthpiece of Japan's bass boom is Basser Magazine, a thick, glossy monthly that features an all-English cover. It has spawned a whole genre of fishing periodicals with names like Seabass and LureFreak. A recent edition of Basser contains 290 pages of advertisements and articles like "Chitoshi Seki's Heavy Carolina Rig Basics." Among the must-have items on Chitoshi's checklist: spinner rather than live-bait, and a rod of at least 6.5 feet. "Anything shorter," cautions Mr. Seki, "will limit your rod action." Top angler Toshinari Namiki also champions spinner bait in his column, "Toshi's Next Cast in the USA."
"All young people have been affected by U.S. culture more or less since they were born," Basser editor Shu Miura says. "They want some American style in fishing."
The Bass-Loving Banker
Even the bass itself is a U.S. import. In 1925, a banker named Tetsuma Akaboshi returned from a tour in the U.S., where he had developed a bass-fishing fetish. Local fisherman had long ago cleansed Japan of bass; it was seen as "evil" because of its appetite for smaller, more popular fish. The rich Mr. Akaboshi defied local fishing interests by importing the voracious black bass by the tankload, and soon the fish had proliferated throughout Japan.
Generations later, in the wake of Japan's bassing passion, Mr. Akaboshi's efforts have been redeemed. Prefectural authorities are even experimenting with bass fish farms.
Kawaguchi Lake, which rests under the shadow of Mt. Fuji, has become the prime spot for Japanese bassers like Takashi Kawano, a 35-year-old medical engineer, and his wife, Hiromi. The couple angles in matching orange-and-black parkas that compliment their his-and-hers Pinnacle Deadbolt DSF 35 open-faced reels.
Mr. and Mrs. Kawano started fishing a year ago. "It's a boom," Mr. Kawano says. "And my wife likes the fact that you don't have to use live bait."
Lake Full of Fishermen
On a recent Sunday morning, some 300 bassers brave unseasonably cold weather to participate in an amateur fishing tournament here that would have drawn only one-third as many anglers five years ago. Shortly after the 7:30 registration deadline, participants are briefed on the tournament rules and cautioned to avoid the local hotels' fleet of glass-bottomed tour boats, which are molded out of fiberglass to look like giant carp. By 9, the contestants are deployed across the lake in vessels ranging from tiny skiffs to an American $12,000 Nitro boat equipped with a $5,000 175-horsepower Evinrude motor.
At one point, the commander of the Nitro waves off a reporter who has drifted in via a rented row-boat. "I'm trying to concentrate," the goateed fisherman whispers. "And you're scaring away the fish." Many of the fishermen come up empty-handed or with small fish.
Kenichi Inoue, a communications-equipment maker, wins the tournament using a spinning "Model 1" reel made by Page, Ariz.-based Gary Yamamoto Co. His boat is a $24,000 American import, which he says he chose because "bass fishing is an American sport." He had to content himself with a Japanese-made Yamaha motor, however, because it came with the boat.Copyright © 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.