Memory Lane - Re-published courtesy of International Bowling Industry



    Here is what eye-witnesses saw as they watched Japanese bowling in the 1960s and '70s, as told by Paul Lane

    Editor's note: This article is related to other stories about some of the biggest bowling centers in the world.
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     Imagine, if you will, a nation slightly smaller than California. A country where little more than 12% of the land is arable, less than 1% can boast permanent crops, and the remaining terrain is mostly rugged and mountainous, making even the smallest plot of level land eligible for expensive development.

    Now consider that this small nation, an Eastern Asian island chain between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, installed more than 120,000 bowling lanes between 1960 and 1972.

    We are, of course, talking about Japan, and a business explosion the magnitude of which bowling had never experienced before and is unlikely to experience again. Anyone who has been in the bowling business for three or four decades will vividly recall it, and those who joined the industry more recently will have at least heard about it.

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     Things started slowly - if installing 5,413 lanes in 202 centers in five years (1960-1965) can be called slow. But what happened next took observers' breath away. Between 1965 and 1972, another 115,608 lanes were installed in 3,495 new centers. Final tallies for the boom: 121,021 lanes installed - almost as many as there are currently in the U.S.; 3,697 centers open for business; an average of 500 new centers opening each year for seven years.

    It was not unusual for as many as six new centers to open the same day. In fact this writer once attended three grand openings in a single day - one in the morning and two in the afternoon that were walking distance from each other. The Japanese bowling market came to resemble U.S. gas stations, with bowling centers sometimes located on all four corners of an intersection.

    Many if not most of these centers were multi-story or split-level affairs, often housing more than 100 lanes. Centers with 60-80 lanes were commonplace. While the largest center in the U.S. was a 112-lane center in Paramus, New Jersey, World Lanes in Tokyo had 252 lanes on nine floors (28 lanes per floor). The next year, World Lanes was officially listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest bowling center.

     The demand on the manufacturers for equipment was overwhelming, with AMF and Brunswick turning out machines for the Japanese market in the U.S., Japan, Germany and the UK, to name but a few locations. In fact, AMF UK earned the Queen's Award for Export four years in a row almost exclusively because of the company's exports to Japan.

    In addition to Brunswick and AMF, two Japanese manufacturers, Odin and Bowl-Mor, also built and installed pinsetting machines and related equipment. The demand for lanes and machines became so intense that the major manufacturers were chartering air cargo planes to fly lane and sub-foundation lumber from the U.S. to Japan.

    Even then, it was difficult to keep up with the demand. Many centers were averaging 90 games and more per lane per day. Potential investors in bowling centers would not take no for an answer. Nothing would dissuade them even from opening a new center across the street from another one.

    But this could not last. While there was little or no slowdown in the continued growth in the number of centers and lanes, the market peaked in bowler development, the population of bowlers spreading over more centers, reducing lineage at center level - one of the few instances where this writer would say that center competition was truly other bowling centers. At the same time, the sport in Japan was virtually devoid of league bowling, a concept that just didn't fit the Japanese lifestyle or mentality.

    Knowing they potentially had much to lose, Brunswick and AMF spearheaded several delegations from the U.S. comprising key members of the BPAA, ABC, WIBC and NBC (the National Bowling Council), who toured Japan making presentations to groups of proprietors, preaching the benefits of a league-based business. But it was a hard sell, especially when Japanese proprietors were enjoying average lineage of 70–90 games per lane a day with open play. In short, league bowling in Japan never got off the ground.

    When the bubble burst, lineage plummeted so fast that most centers were lucky to maintain it in the high end of single digits. Multi-story centers became dark one floor at a time, with the lanes being screened off from the concourse and arcade games and vending machines all that was left. In fact, the collapse came so fast that many centers under construction called it quits before ever opening their doors. As soon as the equipment was installed, the facilities were padlocked and the centers remained dark.

    To give you a better idea of how fast the market collapsed, consider that in 1972 there were 121,021 lanes in 3,697 centers. Two years later, in 1974, 1,322 centers housing 49,398 lanes had closed their doors; and the pace of closure did not slow down for another two years. By 1976, the market was reduced to 880 centers and 24,218 lanes.

    Interestingly, through all of this, the major manufacturers had very few bad debts, partially because most shipments from overseas were made against a letter of credit from a major bank, but also largely due to the Japanese sense of honor.

    It wasn't just overbuilding that created the downslide, however, nor was it the lack of a league structure. There was also the inherent nature of the Japanese people, who take up a new trend almost as soon as they spot it, whether it's Nintendo, golf driving ranges, batting cages, karaoke, or even cell phones (which consume much of today's youth's share of recreational Yen).

    One gets the impression that even smartly furnished, centrally heated Hula Hoop centers could become the next "in" thing to do in Japan. Surprisingly, given the faddish nature of Japanese consumers, glow bowling, which has had such a huge impact in the U.S. and many other overseas markets, simply hasn't been widely accepted.

    As the bowling industry began to flounder in the early seventies, I recall sitting at a window seat in the coffee shop of my downtown Tokyo hotel having a late breakfast when I observed two gentlemen walking by, both wearing easily recognizable designer-brand golf apparel and towing fully loaded golf carts.

    I drew the attention of my Japanese host to them, saying, "There go a couple of businessmen, taking advantage of the nice weather by escaping from the office for a few hours for a round or two of golf." "Oh, no," said my host, "they're headed for the multi-story golf driving range that's a few blocks away."

    That evening I took a stroll and passed the aforementioned driving range: a huge multi-story (at least five levels), floodlit facility that easily accommodated as many people at one time as a 60- to 80-lane bowling center, and on further investigation I learned they had a long waiting list - just as long as a typical Tokyo bowling center had during the boom.

    It wasn't golf driving ranges that absorbed all those lost bowlers, however. In 1969, the Toys and Arcade division of an old Japanese company, Nintendo, established its first games department, simply named Games, in a newly built R&D and production plant in Uji City, a suburb of Kyoto.

    By 1970, Nintendo had introduced electronic technology which eventually led to Nintendo beam gun games and, by 1973, their laser clay shooting system was rocking Japan, often using empty former bowling centers as ranges - and certainly attracting former bowling customers. Nintendo just happened to be next in line when Japanese consumers were ready for a new fad or trend.

    The closure of thousands of centers in Japan changed the very nature of the bowling business worldwide for at least the next five to seven years, as Brunswick and AMF and a host of U.S. and international independents launched a massive buy-back program, purchasing used equipment from Japanese centers that had closed their doors. Some proprietors around the world even bought complete center packages direct, on an as-is, sight-unseen, basis.

    Brunswick's and AMF's buy-back programs focused on machines with high serial numbers, meaning they were almost new and had very little (if any) wear and tear. In fact many of the first buy-backs were from centers that completed the installation of equipment and never opened their doors. It was new equipment at a used price.

    Most of the independents paid less and purchased older (lower serial number) equipment. Like AMF and Brunswick, the more reputable independents refurbished or remanufactured the used machines to like-new condition. The more fly-by-night or less reputable independents, who were little more than junk dealers, also purchased and sold a lot of lanes and machines on an as-is basis.

    In fact, so many machines came out of Japan during the seventies - 80,000-plus - that in most markets it became virtually impossible to sell a new machine.

    The lanes and machines that were not purchased and relocated were simply scrapped or put to other use. For example, I once visited an upscale, multi-story department store in Japan that had once been a bowling center. They had removed all of the bowling equipment except for the lanes, had removed the gutters, and pushed the lanes together to make an expensive floor for the store. You literally walked on bowling lanes while you shopped.

    While the market had collapsed, there were survivors, mostly proprietors who understood the value of having a good marketing program. A few years later, they started focusing on what they could do as a group to make the industry better. They looked to their suppliers, the manufacturers and U.S. bowling trade organizations for help, which led the major manufacturers, Brunswick and AMF, to support a marketing plan to help revive the industry.

    Once again there were delegations heading for Japan, not to preach the benefits of a league program like they had some 10-12 years earlier, but to explain the benefits of a unified industry and an industry-wide trade association designed to promote bowling through advertising, promotion and education.

    This effort was channeled through the National Bowling Council of Japan (NBCJ) in 1979-80, an organization comprising manufacturers and suppliers, proprietors and various bowlers and bowling-related organizations, all contributing to an association patterned on the NBC in the U.S.

    The NBCJ adapted TV commercials and print advertising material made available to them by the NBC. The TV ads were translated and edited for television and movie theaters, and the NBCJ produced their own original educational and promotional material that was made available to the industry at large.

    There was also an aggressive program to develop a national network of qualified bowling instructors, with the goal that every center would be able to offer instruction to newcomers and established bowlers at all times. ABC Bowling Hall of Famer Bill Bunetta, the Master Clinician for the NBC, toured major Japanese cities for weeks on end conducting instructor training schools, and concluded the tour by conducting a Master Clinicians class comprising 24 Japanese professional bowlers, all of whom were being trained to teach bowling instructors.

    This part of the plan was designed to ensure that instructor development programs would continue after Bunetta and the NBC team (which included this writer) returned to the U.S. At the end of the class, the NBCJ nominated Sumi, a Japanese professional bowler on Nippon Brunswick's staff, to become their Master Clinician.

    A particularly memorable experience from this period (when I made six or seven roundtrips to Japan from London in less than 18 months) was seeing Bunetta's instructor classes get started each morning, and then renting a taxi for half a day with my colleague from the U.S., the late Al Spanjer (one of the industry's finest ambassadors) to make cold calls on bowling centers in whatever city we were at the time, to meet with proprietors to promote the concept of a unified industry and to encourage their participation in the program.

    Armed with a shopping bag full of white socks from the U.S., a popular gift at the time, we'd arrive at a center and ask for the owner. I was always impressed by the amount of time owners gave us and the effort they made to communicate, often sending out for an interpreter (at their expense) and typically inviting us for lunch. Not wishing to lose face, or being the cause of making them lose face, we sometimes struggled through two or three meals within a four-to-six-hour period.

    The initial results were encouraging. But while the education programs have had a lasting effect, the immediate results of the NBCJ's efforts did not quite have the impact in the marketplace the individual members had hoped for. The good news was that the individual centers that survived the collapse of the market continued to promote and improve their businesses.

    They also recognized that, in the long term, the game could not be sold on price (discounts, etc.). In fact, wisely they recognized that reducing the price robbed the proprietor of the financial ability to maintain an attractive center and offer the level of customer service that keeps customers coming back.

    Just as in the U.S., Japan developed a men's and women's professional bowlers' tour. Interestingly, at one time the prize money on the ladies' tour was higher than the men's, probably because the ladies' tour had more appeal with television audiences. But both tours suffered and still suffer from the lack of regular television coverage, which is what motivates sponsors.

    In 1984, I met with Mr. Nakano, the Chairman of the Eastern Sports chain of centers, at the BPAA Convention, who asked me to introduce him to PBA founder Eddie Elias and PBA Commissioner Joe Antenora. The outcome of that meeting was the annual PBA Tour's Japan Cup, now in its twentieth year, an event which brings the point leaders of the PBA Tour and the Japan Professional Bowlers Association (JPBA) together for head-to-head competition. In recognition of Mr. Nakano's contribution, the PBA inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1999.

    So, does this story have a happy ending? Sure. After all, Japan is still the second largest bowling market in the world (after the U.S.), with 31,000-32,000 lanes in about 1,100 centers, the average size of which is about 10 lanes larger than an average center in the U.S. And yes, there are still centers with more than 100 lanes, including Nagoya Grand Bowl, which now holds the distinction of being the world largest center, with 156 lanes. Sure, there have been more closures, but only four or five a year, which are offset by new centers, which are opening at pace of about 10-15 a year.

    Open play still dominates the business: about 70% of lineage, with league and tournament play dividing the rest equally. Two-thirds of bowlers are younger than 40 (although the number of dating bowlers in their 20s is declining, while those in their 30s are increasing).

    Proprietors are still promoting their business, anticipating a market divided between older, sports-minded bowlers and younger, strictly leisure-oriented players who visit a center the way they go to an arcade. And yes, bowling is still expensive relative to the per capita income, which probably accounts for how centers can afford to modernize and offer good customer service.

    What have Japanese proprietors learned from all this? Those who survived the collapse of the market in the '60s and '70s - who represent at least 80% of the industry today - understand that they are still here because they promoted and reinvested in their business even when business was good. And they're surviving in today's depressed economy because they're still promoting and reinvesting. Maybe there's a lesson here for all of us.

    For help in preparing this article, we wish to thank Kore Iijima, AMF Bowling Products, Japan; Kaori Muramatsu and Hiroshi Tsuda, The Bowling Journal; Brent Perrier and David Chertow, Brunswick Bowling and Billiards; Tomiko Crown; Youchi Dai, Masanori Kato, and Yukio Matsuo, Eastern Sports Ltd., Tokyo; and Ken Tsuchida, Tsuchida Associates, Tokyo.

    Three 'booming' careers

    One man who remembers the boom is Hiroshi Tsuda. He should: it gave him three careers.

    Tsuda was a 32-year-old chemist when he was approached by a friend to help build a bowling center, the first one, in Kyoto. It was 1963 and the explosion was still over the horizon. Success for the venture was far from a shoo-in.

    "We were uneasy whether American sports such as bowling would be accepted in conservative Kyoto," Tsuda recalls. Also, the owners had decided to set game charges "foolishly high." Where the city train and bus were 15 yen each - about 15 cents - and a dish of noodles cost 30, a single game of bowling went for 250 plus 50 for the shoes.

    And bowling centers raised "public morals" issues. People gamble there, don't they? Proprietors were required to post signs forbidding entry to junior and senior high school kids.

    "In preparing to open under such conditions, we made targets of wealthy people, business people and affluent students," says Tsuda. Pamphlets were designed to ballyhoo the center as if it were a cabaret and passed out at entrances to concerts and plays, the brochures were aimed at linking bowling to refined cultural tastes.

    It worked.

    Kamogawa Bowl became the place in Kyoto for maiko and geisha hostesses to invite their companions. Waiting lines began forming at 8 in the morning for the daily 9 o'clock opening and continued all day long - waits of two hours not uncommon.

    Yet Tsuda found the days "tedious"; the manager's job he had taken when the house opened, "monotonous." Fortunately for him, U.S. dockworkers were restive in the early '60s. Frequent strikes made lane chemicals hard to get and thorough lane maintenance "impossible," Tsuda says. Why not brew up a domestic product?

    Drawing on his stint as a chemist for Kanebo, Tsuda began analyzing the chemicals he could lay hands on. At the end of his labors he had produced a line of chemicals "similar to AMF and Brunswick.

    As a result, my second bowling life started": head of his own firm, Bowl Chemical Company, manufacturer of lane maintenance elixirs. The year was 1965. Ahead were his creation of a urethane finish that found wide acceptance in Japan and the satisfying, steady growth of his company. "The products were good, and cheaper than the United States products. Therefore, the company grew well," he sums up.

    But he was still restless. In 1969, Tsuda sold the chemical business, set up Rotary Press Company, and began his third bowling life: publisher of Japan Bowling Review. It was a four-page tabloid newspaper distributed to 60 centers and dedicated to the art and science of bowling management. Today its successor, The Bowling Journal, is a slick-stock monthly for serious bowlers, with a circulation of 24,000 across Japan.

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