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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Economic prosperity belies Japan's stubborn recession

Associated Press

TOKYO — Noriko Hagiwara loves her 6-inch platform boots. She shops at pricey downtown boutiques named Egoist and Galsville. She tints her hair.

Time to play? She has plenty. The 17-year-old hangs out in Shibuya district, where BMWs line the boulevards and kids drop hundreds of dollars for a pair of shoes.

Hagiwara seems as carefree as the Tokyo scene around her. She cocks her head to one side and flashes her eyes up to the sky when asked a question. Eager to talk, she pushes her friends aside to take center stage.

Then she tells you her troubles.

Her workaholic father is never home. She talks of friends turning to prostitution for money to buy luxury handbags. Kids caught three times coming to school with tinted hair face expulsion. Hagiwara already has been caught at least once.

When asked about her dream for the future, she answers not with hopes for riches or a career. She wants something simple that will give her life meaning.

"I imagine myself strolling with my husband in old age, holding hands," she says thoughtfully. "That's the kind of family I want — a warm family."

If Hagiwara looks at life in modern Japan and sees emptiness, she's not alone — the whole country seems locked in a choking malaise. Society is making a bit of room for people who won't play by the old rules anymore, but the change is coming slowly and grudgingly.

Nothing typifies Japan's predicament more than the economy, trapped in recession for more than a decade.

A short train ride from where Hagiwara hangs out with her friends, a towering stone building houses a stock market where prices plummeted this year to 16-year lows. Unemployment, at 4.8 percent, is near postwar highs. Topflight companies have gone bankrupt. An American runs Mazda. A Frenchman runs Nissan.

Populist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi swept into office in April, soundly defeating the ruling party's old guard with promises of a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way Japan does business.

But to reach those goals, all he can promise is pain — higher unemployment, more belt-tightening.

Long-standing problems

The roots of today's problems run much deeper than the economy.

For more than a century, from feudal 19th-century backwater through the catastrophe of World War II to becoming a pacifist economic juggernaut, the Japanese borrowed everything they could from the West. Kimonos gave way to tuxedos, tuxedos to blue jeans; rice and miso soup to coffee and Big Macs; Noh theater to Hollywood.

For 50 years, the payoff was prosperity, the promise of more riches tomorrow.

Yet suicides are at an all-time high — 33,048 Japanese killed themselves in 1999, a 35 percent increase over two years. Reports of rising child abuse fill the newspapers. Merciless bullying and out-of-control classrooms are ripping at Japan's once-proud educational system.

Housebound mothers and fathers who work 18-hour days don't make for happy families. And Japan's aging society — 17.7 percent is 65 or older, compared with 12.6 percent in the United States — is driving health insurance and pension systems to the brink of failure.

Ordinary Japanese find themselves trapped between an unresponsive establishment and a restive society.

Students are becoming more individualistic, but schools are unbendingly conformist. Women are growing more ambitious, but boardrooms remain a male preserve. Young business people increasingly want to innovate, but conservative banks are reluctant to lend to them.

Despite Koizumi's coup against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's entrenched elite, deep political change is still largely blocked by an electoral system that favors the rural base of the conservatives. The supremacy of unelected bureaucrats insulates the real sources of power from public opinion.

A lack of lawyers and a secretive legal system mean people rarely turn to courts to challenge authority. Vested interests have thwarted moves to improve everything from air quality to the availability of heart transplants.

Hagiwara reflects the conflicted Japanese mind. She complains about her strict high school, argues for more freedom, yet suspects the old ways might be best.

"Our way of thinking is very carefree," she says. "But maybe our parents' generation did things the right way."

Problems could linger

For all the economic weakness it radiates to the outside world, it's conceivable that Japan, insulated from real pain by flush savings accounts and global financial clout, could limp on for years.

It remains the world's second-largest economy, its gross national product greater than that of the rest of Asia combined, China included.

Amid all the recession and downsizing, the average Japanese household still has more than $110,000 in savings, and the average salaried worker makes more than $40,000 a year. The wealth is on show for any visitor taking the highway from Tokyo's international airport into the city.

Prosperity is evident in the cars, shop windows and cafes with their $5 cups of coffee, and automation still holds the nation in thrall, from the talking parking meters to the fake birdsong in hotel lobbies.

The gadgetry is matched by the industriousness and attention to detail. Guards chant "good morning" ("ohayo gozaimasu!") for hours at a time to visitors streaming into their buildings. Deliverymen here don't walk — they sprint.

Nowadays it's a little easier to be a rule-breaker like Kanae Tsutsumi. In a country where men are supposed to run the company and head the household, Tsutsumi is a divorced mother and chief executive of Career-Mam, an Internet-based marketing research and employment agency aimed at housewives and working women.

At 36, Tsutsumi is on the cusp of Japan's changes. Nuclear families have replaced extended clans. The high cost of raising and educating children and greater career ambitions of women have pushed the national birthrate to an all-time low — only 1.34 births per woman. Unhappy couples are now more likely to file for divorce: 250,500 couples broke up in 1999 — nearly 100,000 more than in 1990.

The challenges for women like Tsutsumi are many. She has shared her tiny apartment with her 7-year-old son since splitting with her husband last year. After school lets out, the boy goes to daycare until his mother gets away from work. She and others like her must put up with widespread criticism that they have sacrificed society's well-being for their own "selfish" desires.

"For a woman to realize her dreams, she has to fight as if she were fighting for her life," Tsutsumi says.

A country of opposites

Still, for all its rules and workaholism, Japan can be a comforting place. You can still daydream on the subway without worrying about pickpockets. Even fast-food lunches are tastefully packaged. And there's a calming, contemplative effect in traditions like the centuries-old rite of flocking to parks to view cherry blossoms in springtime.

The polar opposite, in modern Japan, is a place like Sanya.

The neighborhood in northeast Tokyo is the abyss, filled with those who have fallen about as far as there is to go.

In this darkest side of the souring of the Japanese miracle live the jobless, the homeless, the alcoholics, the mentally ill. Men huddle around small bonfires on cold mornings, some already drinking sake or beer, others warming themselves before applying at a local employment agency for a day's work.

The slum has been around for decades, long an anonymous place for the disadvantaged to drop out of society. The word "Sanya" can draw blank looks even from lifelong Tokyoites. Built around feudal execution grounds and split among three wards, Sanya does not even legally exist.

The freshest arrivals tell of the grinding pressures of today's Japan, and how the country, which has long expected families to take care of their own, can't cope with those who fall through the cracks.

Sanya is still an exception, by comparison with many Western metropolises. The norm is better represented by Yoshihiko and Tomoko Tamagawa, a middle-class couple enjoying spring with a picnic by a river on the edge of Tokyo.

They aren't rich but they are comfortable: their clothes are new; their cell phones have Internet access; they shop at the Gap.

But they, too, sense that the promise of a better tomorrow may be slipping away.

Yoshihiko, 32, is crossing his fingers that the printing machine factory he works at can escape the downsizing ravaging other companies. Tomoko, 33, frets about the threats of crime and pollution to their two preschoolers.

They agree that greater freedom at home and at work can mean a better life. But they are also worried that change means uncertainty.

"People all have different values — it's very unstable," Tamagawa says. "In the old days, fathers passed on their values to their children.

"But now," he says, as his 2-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl scampered about, "kids are more out in society, they live in luxury. Even the way they play is different."