Flexible Focus #75: Tofu Wars and the Art of Abundance

by William Reed on October 27, 2011

Tofu Wars: Battle of the Bean Curd

In the current crisis people in Japan are actually fighting over Tofu, one of Japan’s premier soybean products, in what might be called the Battle of the Bean Curd.

A search in Japanese for the words 豆腐激安 (tofu gekiyasu, or drastically discounted tofu) brings up nearly 350,000 sites!

Tofu comes in various price ranges, a small block retailing for 160 yen might be a typical price, but some supermarkets are offering Tofu blocks for as low as 29 yen.

Since they are estimated to be purchasing the product for around 36 yen wholesale, this is clearly a loss leader, designed to draw customers into the store.

And it works, according to interviews featured on a recent newscast, as shoppers get more and more price conscious to save money wherever they can. This is great news for consumers, but it is killing the specialist Tofu producers, who depend on this single product and its variations for their livelihood.

Tofu makers pride themselves on maintaining quality, and also producing original tofu products through variations on a theme.

But the price difference between the Tofu specialty shops, and the supermarkets who are almost giving it away, is so significant that it has decimated the specialty shops. In some areas, the number of specialty shops surviving is down to one in ten from its former level, a disaster by any measure.

The character above is the word for Abundance (豊 yutaka), and interestingly is made of two radicals, the upper radical meaning melody (曲) and the lower radical meaning bean (豆).

It may take a stretch of the imagination to connect melodious beans to abundance, wealth, and richness, but it is a happy image, and abundance is different from the scarcity mentality which leads to winner-takes-all competition.

If you live in Japan, it might be worth visiting a Tofu Specialty Shop, and ask them the difference that makes their products better than the discounted Tofu slabs sold at supermarkets.

There is even a Japan Tofu Association which is dedicated to educating people about how to enjoy and benefit from this healthy food.

Supermarkets need to attract customers too, but do they need to focus on a single product as a loss leader, to the point where they decimate the neighborhood specialty shops?

  • Why not rotate among different products to reduce the damage, and still provide consumers with an incentive to shop for bargains?
  • Specialty shops for their part, would do well to educate consumers online about what makes their products special, and worth the difference in price.
  • Can you think of other examples where superstores are flattening local producers because of a similar price war?
  • As a consumer, do you think about the consequences of your purchases when you fill your cart with low-priced items?

Food for thought.

Enough for everybody

The interesting thing about scarcity is that it surfaces the underlying mentality that was there all the time. Scarcity can bring out patience and the spirit of community, as it did following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan at the roots; or it can trigger riots and panic in the spirit of every man for himself.

This is not something that you cultivate at the last minute, but rather the result of the culture, or the cultivation that precedes the occurrence. It is in fact the fruits of the underlying mentality, not the outward conditions that we see. Abundance vs Scarcity. Enough for everybody, or get yours while you can.

We see this played out in the world’s economies. It is precisely the scarcity mentality which causes even the very wealthy to play a stingy and greedy game. And it is also the abundance mentality which enables truly wealthy people to be generous and leave a legacy that helps others. The former suffer from tunnel vision (either/or), while the latter see the world in full surround (both/and). A broad field of vision is characteristic of flexible focus, and is the best way we can be open to creative solutions that help everyone, rather than just the self-serving.

Use the Mandala Chart to open your mind to the mentality of abundance, and demonstrate what you know through what you do.

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