Secondhand Piano Shop

"Gray-Market" Japanese Pianos


Released: 11/10/2009 12:32:55 PM    Source: Singapore Piano Shop

The section following is specifically about Japanese "gray market" pianos.
In recent years the term "gray market" has been applied (or rather, misapplied*) to a group of Japanese pianos as follows:
*Webster's New World Dictionary defines gray market as "a place or system for selling scarce goods at above prevailing prices, a practice considered unethical although legal." Since these so-called "gray market" Japanese pianos are generally neither scarce, nor sold above prevailing prices, it is hard to see how the definition applies, so we are using the term here based solely on its usage by a certain segment of the piano industry and the public at this time. It is important to realize that piano terminology, epithets, and existing ideas and perceptions about pianos, (or propaganda), are commonly put into the public mind, or into public circulation, by those with the interest, or the advertising budget to do so; and so the manufacturers and dealers of pianos do have to take responsibility for their use, or misuse, of the language, and the facts.)
One of the biggest headaches for both manufacturers and dealers of new pianos is the used piano market. Sales of private party (and other) used instruments frequently take a large chunk out of the the markets and profits of dealers and makers of new instruments. Pianos often have a long life, and can last for many decades; this can be a good thing for many people, but is often not so good for those who make and sell new pianos.
In Japan, recently, there has been a large number of used pianos that have come on the market. There are several apparent reasons for this. One is that Japan's population has been aging, in recent years, and parents whose children have left home often sell their pianos in order to free up space (as in Europe, space is at a premium in Japan - far more uprights are sold than grands). Beginning in the late 1990's there have also been economic and financial crises in Asia, and an economic recession in Japan that radically decreased consumer spending in that country. The demand for pianos in Japan dropped sharply as a result. Before that, in the mid-1980's the Japanese piano market had already became saturated; Japanese piano manufacturers, realizing the threat of overproduction or overcapacity, had voluntarily decreased production, but it apparently wasn't enough. The immediate result, of all these forces was a excess of used Japanese pianos in Japan, and on the export market (many of these pianos ended up in the U.S.A.)
Another factor contributing to the large quantity of used Japanese pianos available is that, historically, Japanese consumers have had an aversion to buying used products, including pianos, due to certain cultural beliefs and perceptions. This has been changing, slowly. In the past, Japanese families would buy one piano for life, so it had to be good quality (no starter or entry level pianos.) Japanese families have only in the last few years been starting to do that which many U.S. families have done for decades: buy a digital or used piano first, and then wait to see how their child progressed before investing in a new, or more serious, instrument.
(It seems, however, that this aversion to purchasing used instruments pertains mainly to Japanese pianos: Used Steinways are in great demand in Japan, and there are businesses that buy up used Steinways in the U.S., and then ship them to Japan, where they are then sold for 2 to 3 times the price (or more!). So the cultural bias against used pianos seems to be a bit selective, to say the least. I perceive that it's probably advantageous for the Japanese to get used Japanese pianos out of the country, in order to make room for the sale of new pianos, and not clog up the economy, which is pretty much reliant upon both the production, and sale, of new products.)
There are some additional factors: Owners of pianos in Japan, including private parties and institutions, are frequently encouraged to trade in their older pianos for new ones, even though the older ones may still be in very good, or even excellent, condition. In Japan, a piano is a prized possession, and most Japanese are fastidious about how they take care of their instruments, having them regularly serviced, and keeping them covered when not in use. American consumers are frequently amazed to see the immaculate condition and finishes of these used Japanese (from Japan) pianos, which may be anywhere from 10 to 30 years old or more.
To make a long story short, due to the currently high prices of new Japanese pianos here in the U.S, and the demand for a lower-cost alternative for those still wanting a Japanese piano; and given the low demand for most used pianos in Japan, despite their generally excellent condition, there is presently a very active business in Japan of rounding up these used pianos (mainly Kawais and Yamahas, with a smattering of other Japanese brands) and packing them off to the U.S. via "containerized freight," for resale, and many U.S. piano dealers now carry them. Whatever the cultural (or otherwise) aversion of Japanese consumers to used merchandise, many U.S. piano buyers seem to have no such compunctions, having found a great deal, as well as great satisfaction, in the purchase of a piano that, as far as they are concerned, looks and performs just like the new Yamahas and Kawais, and at a fraction of the price. Both Yamaha and Kawai make different models for other parts of the world (different world markets), and consequently some of these pianos have slightly different designs, stringing scales, or cabinet styling than their U.S. market-targeted counterparts, often giving them a unique, exotic, or mellow sound that many U.S. buyers find refreshing or appealing, when compared to the the characteristic sound of the U.S.-targeted models. Because of their (often) near-immaculate condition, and a significantly lower price than comparable new Japanese pianos, these pianos frequently compete directly and well with sales of new Kawais and Yamahas. As with Steinway and other U.S. makers of high-quality pianos, the Japanese makers' most serious competition seems to be their own used pianos. There's nothing like stumbling over your own success.
Not all of the pianos, of course, are in perfect condition, and wholesalers who import them usually have a classification system to let dealers or buyers know what to expect. A or A- condition pianos are are generally newer models and usually fairly flawless, except perhaps for some really minor surface scratches on the case in isolated places. B+ and B grade pianos generally have a few minor defects, usually more scratches on the case or cabinet blemishes, or are older, or have somewhat more wear. B- , C+, and C pianos usually need some minor to moderate work, are still rougher, and/or have cases that some people would want to have touched up or polished out, but which others would not mind. (More a "musician's" piano than a "decorators"). Of course all this varies, depending on the wholesaler and who is doing the grading. (Most dealers usually opt for the A and B grade pianos.) Pianos below C grade usually don't get shipped here. Usually all the pianos, whatever grade, can benefit from some voicing, regulation, and polishing up, but for many people, they could also just be taken home, given a tuning, and played. Many of the pianos have the actual Kawai or Yamaha name on them. Others have names by which they are sold in Japan, such as Miki, Eterna, or Kaiser (Yamaha) or Diapason (Kawai). There are other brands as well, not made by Kawai or Yamaha, but by other Japanese piano manufacturers such as Tokai, Toyo, and Atlas.
Dealers of new Japanese pianos here in the U.S. would much rather the Japanese had dropped these used pianos in the Pacific rather than sending them here to us ("why can't the Japanese do their dumping in their own back yard instead of ours?"), but obviously not everyone feels this way, as there is quite a brisk business selling them here in the States. Undoubtedly it helps solve the problem (glut?) of surplus used pianos for them in Japan, and as a recycling alternative, (they recycle the steel from our '56 Chevys, we recycle their '86 Yamahas and Kawais) certainly seems ecologically sound to me. I would rather see pianos that still have significant useful life remaining being utilized and played, rather than having manufacturers try and convince everyone they need a new instrument every five to ten years, and cutting down more and more trees and using up more scarce natural resources in a compulsive effort to sell yet more new instruments. I am all for recycling pianos where appropriate, especially if it gives someone a choice of getting a higher-quality instrument in a situation where they otherwise might not have been able to afford one. While exporting these used pianos to us (U.S.) may solve a problem locally for them in Japan, however, it apparently causes additional problems for Kawai and Yamaha stateside, especially among their U.S. dealers, who have enough problems competing with private-party sales of used Japanese pianos here, let alone wholesalers who now bring in containerloads of used Japanese pianos and then sell them to the competitor down the street. It's an interesting situation to reflect on, whoever or whatever the driving forces may be.
Frequently manufacturers and dealers of new Japanese pianos, and their supporters, will use emotionally-charged, sometimes almost hysterical, language and terminology in referring to the used Japanese pianos from Japan, calling them "bootleg" and/or "transshipped," (in addition to "gray-market") and hinting at myriad problems the pianos may have down the line as a result of not being intended for the U.S. climate (or market). The amount of invective employed seems to be directly proportional to the perceived threat of competition. Impressive-sounding facts and figures will be quoted, including differences in wood moisture content levels for pianos prepared for tropical vs. dry climates, and predictions made about the dire consequences of bringing Japanese-market pianos onto U.S. "desert" soil. If that doesn't prove enough to dissuade a person from buying one, a picture is often painted of pianos that come from practice rooms in Japanese conservatories and universities, where dedicated students have been doing heavy practicing on them 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, and which are completely worn out within a few years. This propaganda, unfortunately, has also taken seed in some of the technical community, and is being repeated, through word of mouth, in print, and on technical discussion boards, by technicians, piano teachers, and others who may also have a vested interest in selling new Japanese instruments, without ever having seen, themselves, any evidence of the problems they are claiming the used Japanese pianos have. To me this is irresponsible, because it may cause some piano owners to become dissatisfied with a perfectly good instrument, or discourage others from buying one.
The real truth is that most of these pianos I have seen have been in very good condition and well-maintained, and are far from being worn out. The wholesalers seem to do a pretty good job of sorting out the good pianos from the bad before they are sent here, and the grading system seems to be fairly competent and reliable. Wholesalers and importers usually offer to exchange pianos if a dealer is not happy with what he gets, and the dealer usually passes that option along to the customer; most dealers are willing, after inspecting the pianos, to put anywhere from a 2 to 5 year warranty on the instruments.
The device most often used to discourage people from buying these so-called "gray-market" Japanese pianos is the claim, most often made by dealers of new Japanese pianos, that the used pianos which were originally sold new in Japan were not intended, or seasoned for our climate. While there may be some degree of validity to this argument, the truth is it's not that simple. (Click here for a discussion of the controversy on attempting to pre-season pianos for specific environments and climates).
For one thing, which climate are they talking about? The United States has all sorts of different climates, from the arid deserts of the Southwest to the humid swamps and bayous of the Southeast. Besides this rather obvious little complication, there are also all sorts of "indoor environments" caused by heavily insulated walls and ceilings, large windows that face the sun, swimming pools, radiators, showers, and aquariums, and above all, central heating and air conditioning. These factors all conspire to defy any attempt to pre-season a piano for any specific climate. In short, experience with both "legitimate" and "gray market" Japanese pianos has shown that all these variables, which are beyond the control of the manufacturer, tend to pretty much cancel out any benefits from targeting or pre-seasoning a piano for any particular sphere. It is significant that after trying different seasoning lines over the years, Kawai has recently opted to return to a single "drying" line or process, regardless of where the pianos are to be sent (the same as most other piano manufacturers have done over the years.)
Reportedly, the main problem the Japanese piano manufacturers were apparently trying to address was the problem of indoor dryness in many U.S. homes as a consequence of central heating or air conditioning. This, evidently, is generally not a problem, (or not so much of a problem), in the Orient where "open air" is more the norm, but also not a problem in (many other) U.S. homes where they don't go nuts with the heating and air conditioning. (Incidentally, any extremely low humidity that happens seasonally/cyclically, as with heating and air conditioning, is bad for any piano, not just "tropical" ones. If you are aware of this possibility and take measures to monitor the humidity in your home or in the vicinity of the piano, you can avoid problems with either type of piano.)