The purchases pale in prestige compared with deals like Sony's takeover of Columbia Pictures, or Mitsubishi's purchase of the Rockefeller Center, both at the peak of Japan's economic bubble in 1989.
But current circumstances — most notably, a strong yen that is elevating Japan's purchasing power overseas — could send Japanese companies shopping again overseas, making them bigger global players despite a stagnant economy at home.
Japanese businesses have spent $27 billion buying overseas companies so far in 2010, already more than in all of 2009. That includes a string of deals by the telecom giant NTT, including its July agreement to buy Dimension Data, a network service provider based in South Africa, for $3.24 billion. Last week, the convenience store chain 7-Eleven, owned by Japan's Seven & I Holdings, made a $2 billion offer to buy a smaller American rival, Casey's General Stores.
Just as aggressive, on a smaller financial scale, is Japan's biggest e-commerce company, Rakuten. In the last four months it has acquired the American online retailer Buy.com for $250 million and paid a similar amount for a European Web shopping site, PriceMinister.
"This is a rare opportunity for Japanese companies to aggressively acquire foreign companies," Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten's founder and chief executive, said in a recent interview. "They have cash, they can finance it. They should do it, and build a presence globally."
The soaring yen has weighed on Japan's export-led recovery as manufacturers like Toyota and Sony wring their hands, watching foreign competitors easily beat their prices. But businesses like Rakuten are mining the dark cloud's silver lining, using their high-value yen to go on global shopping sprees.