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From Tee to Tragedy: The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Japan's Golf Empire
During Japan's "bubble economy" era, golf courses sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
These emerald pastures became the hub of Japanese business culture.
Golf courses were where deals were struck, relationships cultivated, and status asserted.
For wealthy Japanese men, golf memberships were the ultimate status symbol.
And as stock prices soared skyward, so did the cost of joining the most exclusive clubs.
Like their counterparts on Wall Street, Japan's "salarymen" reveled in the hierarchy.
They measured their standing by the prestige of the club stamped on their golf bags. Japan's social order is defined by conformity.
Nothing demonstrated one's position like the ability to spend millions on a country club membership.
Like their counterparts on Wall Street, Japan's "salarymen" reveled in the hierarchy, calculating their standing by the prestige of the club stamped on their golf bags. In a social order defined by conformity, nothing demonstrated one's position like the ability to spend millions on a country club membership. By the late 1980s, it was not unusual for Tokyo's most exclusive clubs to charge over $3 million just for the privilege of teeing off. The most expensive golf membership in Japan was the exclusive Koganei Golf Club-a vast oasis of immaculately manicured greenery near Tokyo. Golf club membership rose from 100 million to 400 million yen, or $3.7 million.
It was where members played golf alongside the likes of former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Noboru Takeshita.
As one businessman put it:
“Playing at a place like Koganei is like playing on God`s private golf course.''
In 1990, the average membership in a private golf club cost 40 million yen, or $258,065.
At the market's zenith, more than 20 clubs demanded an entrance fee exceeding $1 million. That was near the median price of a home in Tokyo.
A Japanese yakuza (gangster) don once offered $3.8 million to gain entry to Koganei. He was refused.
By comparison, memberships in even the most exclusive US clubs cost no more than $35,000.
This golf mania spawned a mini-industry of analysts to track prices. In early 1982, the Nikkei Golf Club Membership Index was launched to monitor average membership costs at 500 top Japanese clubs. Like the surging Nikkei stock average, the golf index soared as speculative fever infected the nation - rising from a base of 100 in 1982 to over 160 by 1985, before peaking around 1000 in early 1990. For investors who got in early, country club memberships were a ten-bagger.
This golf mania spawned a mini-industry of analysts to track prices.
In early 1982, the Nikkei launched its Golf Club Membership Index. Golf club memberships were bought and sold on special trading room floors as just like stocks.
It monitored the average membership costs at 500 top Japanese clubs.
Like the surging Nikkei, the golf index soared as speculative fever infected the nation.
It rose from a base of 100 in 1982 to over 160 by 1985. It peaked at around 1,000 in early 1990.
For investors who got in early, country club memberships were a ten-bagger.
By 1990, the total market value of golf memberships reached a staggering $200 billion. That equaled the value of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Despite the astronomical costs, demand far exceeded supply at most exclusive clubs. Japan's newly minted millionaires clamored to show off their wealth on the links.
Speculators bought and sold golf memberships like stocks. Brokers solicited subscriptions for the 2000 or so golf clubs under construction in the 1980s and 1990s. They resold them for quick profits, like trading shares.
Banks provided margin loans up to 90% against the collateral of membership certificates. Tokai Bank provided up to 50 million yen ($323,000) to purchase golf memberships. Golf club operators used members' deposits to build the course and invest in real estate and stocks.
The golf obsession spread beyond Japan's shores. Flush with cash, developers bought up most of the golf courses in Hawaii. In September 1990, Cosmo World a property company- purchased the Pebble Beach golf course in California. It paid an astonishing $831 million- an unthinkable sum.
But then, as sure as day turned into night, the market turned south.
After peaking in December 1989, the Tokyo Stock Exchange entered a deep bear market. Real estate cratered. Country club memberships went from status symbols to financial millstones.
By 1992, Cosmo World unloaded Pebble Beach at over a $300 million loss.
The Nikkei Golf Index sank nearly 50% from its peak. Members scrambled to cash out. Demands for refunds exceeded 10 trillion yen or $75 billion in total.
As always, leverage made the bust far worse.
Some members had borrowed money for memberships, which they couldn't repay. Others even mortgaged their homes.
Many golf course developers invested subscription funds in the stock market and declared themselves bankrupt.
The collapse also revealed its usual number of scandals. Some club operators sold far more memberships than legally allowed,
Police raided the Ibaraki Country Club after it sold nearly 60,000 memberships instead of the authorized 2000.
The Gatsby Golf Club had also illegally increased memberships by 15 times its prescribed limit.
One member of the Yakuza had raised 38 billion yen ($285 million) by selling fraudulent memberships in the Iwama Country Club. He failed to disclose it was a public golf course with no private membership rights.
Japan's golf craze mirrored its broader bubble economy. It was a meteoric rise fueled by inflated assets, easy credit, and irrational exuberance.
The boom and bust of Japan's golf index was a metaphor for the excesses of the broader bubble economy. Fueled by easy credit, inflated asset prices, and rampant speculation, it was a textbook bubble.
But when the bubble inevitably burst, the plunging index laid bare the salaryman’s hubris.
What had once measured prestige now quantified financial ruin. The golf index morphed from symbolizing Japanese power to becoming an icon of national shame.
Stocks, real estate, and golf club memberships had soared with Japan's economic miracle. All came plummeting to earth with a humbling crash.