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Ban on secondhand sales angers Japanese gadget lovers

TOKYO—In a nation of gadget lovers, a ban on reselling old appliances has everyone from musicians and artists to thrift shop owners up in arms.

Environmental experts also are upset, saying the move could cram Japan's landfills with still-functioning appliances jettisoned as industrial waste.

Regulations that go into effect this weekend require that electrical devices manufactured before 2001 carry stickers that declare them safe from electrical hazards. Without the stickers, their sales are illegal.

Initially, the Trade Ministry intended to ban the resale of all older appliances, fearing that they could be dangerous. But protests mounted. A famed musician gathered 75,000 names on a petition. Young media artists plunked themselves down in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district in protest. So the ministry settled on the safety stickers.

Even that's upset dealers of older appliances, however. The equipment to test electrical circuitry by pumping 1,000 volts through appliances, checking for electrical leakages, and smoke and fire damage, costs at least $2,000.

"That means a $500 classic boombox would cost $2,500. Small shops like ours would have to close our businesses," said Hisami Tsuruoka, who with her husband operates a small Tokyo store, TurboSonic, that sells vintage boomboxes and radio cassette players made in the 1970s and 1980s. The items are still popular among collectors and artists.

Artists say the regulations infringe on popular culture, affecting the resale of items such as turntables and electric guitars used by musicians.

"We were born surrounded by electrical gadgets and have been named `Nintendo Kids,'" said Hiroko Mugibayashi, a 32-year-old artist. "For my generation, gadgets are not only tools but part of culture and art. To ban and get rid of old electrical gadgets seems like nonsense to us!"

The Electrical Safety Law was passed in 2001, but hundreds of secondhand shop owners became aware of it only in February as a grace period neared expiration. Many were shocked at the penalties: a fine of about $10,000 or a year in jail.

Japanese officials have insisted that the law is intended to ensure safety. About 10 percent of the 33,000 or so fires in Japan in 2004 were caused by electrical leaks, according to the national Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

But some opponents say the law's real purpose is to boost Japan's economy by forcing people to buy new appliances.

"To ban secondhand sales forces consumers to purchase new items," said Nanzuka, a 28-year-old artist who goes by only one name and is a leader among artists protesting the ban.

Faced with complaints, the Trade Ministry has ceded some ground. It announced last week that secondhand shops can "lease" out old appliances and devices without facing arrest or huge fines.

The ministry backtracked further on Thursday, saying that a list of 1,918 "vintage" products, such as power amps, synthesizers, electric guitars and slide projectors, would be exempt.

But that set off new complaints from secondhand shop owners, who said that the word "vintage" is subjective.

"Everybody has a different value for what is `vintage,'" said Kouichiro Ogawa, a dealer who represents some 1,000 secondhand shops against the law. "The first television that a bereaved husband bought for his (now-deceased) wife could be considered `vintage.'"

Ogawa said that at least a quarter of the merchandise in most thrift shops hasn't been certified and will have to be junked.

That will exacerbate landfill problems in a country where the Environmental Agency has long urged the citizenry to embrace the "three Rs—reuse, recycle and reduce."

"Japanese electrical appliances are good quality and many items can function even after 10 or 15 years," Ogawa said. "They all will become garbage."

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(Doi is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-APPLIANCES

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