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‘Japan is back’ but small business isn’t

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

The old Japan is dying. Is a new Japan being born?

The yen is low, the stock market is high. Prices are up, gross domestic product rising. “Abenomics” seems to be working. Why then, asks Spa! magazine, are so few feeling it?

The monetarist policies at the heart of Abenomics have produced results that seem to justify Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proudest boast: “Japan is back.” Investors and major corporations, exporters in particular, are similarly triumphant. After 20 years of economic stagnation, they are prospering again.

Is anyone else?

The surface gleams, but beneath it Spa! discerns rot. There is an economic concept, much beloved of economic elites, called trickle-down. As the rich get richer they spend more, build more, invest more, fuel growth, create jobs, raise wages and spread universal happiness. That’s the theory. Is it happening?

It is not, say Spa! and others. The increasing riches of the rich are not trickling down. Instead, the middle class and poor are falling further behind. Their reduced means constrict consumption. Constricted consumption constricts the economy as a whole. Add to that the implications of the “aging society” — fewer workers, more retirees. Add to that April’s consumption tax hike, a further challenge to spending. “Japan is back?” For the big corporations that can export their way out of the domestic morass, maybe. For their employees, many of whom got their first pay raises in years this spring, possibly. But as the weekly Shukan Asahi reminds us, 99 percent of Japan’s 4 million-odd companies are “small,” meaning they operate on a scale of under ¥100 million a year. At that level you don’t count for much within “Japan Inc.”

Ota Ward is Tokyo’s factory town, home to 6,000-odd small factories. That sounds like a lot but it’s down from 10,000 a few decades ago, and the downward trend is accelerating, says Shukan Asahi. The magazine’s reporter has to walk far into the once bustling ward before he finds an unshuttered factory. It produces parts for big steel firms. “It has never been this bad,” says the 76-year-old owner, looking back on more than 60 years of operation. “We want to work, but . . .” He indicates an ashtray overflowing with butts, a measure of how much time his reduced staff spends on breaks.

Across the city in Sumida Ward it’s much the same story. “There have been hard times over the years but never like this,” says the 73-year-old operator of a metal foundry. “Twenty years ago there was no time to sleep.” Overwork must have seemed a hardship then. Now it’s the stuff of nostalgia.

Higher cost prices, lower sales prices, killer competition from overseas — that’s progress. It’s probably inevitable, arguably good, certainly deeply rooted. The automobile sidelined the horse and buggy. The computer killed the typewriter. Tough luck for those left behind. Forward! Spa! discusses electric vehicles and their implications for the conventional auto industry. Among other things, electric cars are simpler, containing 10,000-odd parts compared to 90,000-odd in gasoline cars. Electric cars have been a hard sell but are projected to take off, and when they do, the industry will buckle. New opportunities for some — will Sony and Panasonic join the hitherto closed ranks of car makers? — are lost opportunities for others. Adapt or die. Has it ever been different?

True, inescapably true — but admission of inevitability solves no problems. One-tenth of Japan’s small companies are mired in debts they can’t pay, business revitalization consultant Hirofumi Yoshikawa tells Shukan Asahi. The magazine’s short-term forecast is a rash of bankruptcies unseen in this country since 1984. Long term? “Double-digit unemployment, increasing suicide.” It’s not a pretty picture.

As with companies, so with whole regions. Shizuoka Prefecture, once part of Japan’s industrial heartland, is losing population at an alarming rate, the Asahi Shimbun reported last week. The prefecture now ranks second nationwide (after Hokkaido) in terms of “social depopulation” — people moving out outnumbering people moving in; as opposed to natural depopulation — deaths outnumbering births — which is also proceeding apace.

Shizuoka used to be a kind of macro Ota Ward, full of factories making parts and finished products for the Tokyo market. Motorcycles were its distinctive product. Honda started here — in 1954 — but pulled out in 2008. Yamaha, founded in 1955 and still headquartered in the prefecture, has shifted much of its production to China. Is Abenomics a magic wand that can make an aging nation young enough to buy motorcycles? Not so far. In 2013, says the Asahi, Japan’s nationwide production of them totaled 563,000 — down 70 percent in 10 years.

Spa!’s feature bears the grim title, “Jobs that will be extinct in five years.” There are lots of them, the threat ranging across various fields — supermarkets, clothing, banking, media. Partly it’s the price we pay for change — the more rapid the change, the less relevant today’s skills will be tomorrow. Other factors are peculiar to, or at least accentuated in, Japan — reduced domestic demand due to the aging society, heightened competition from overseas, and this less-noticed one which, Spa! suggests, may help explain the general mental paralysis that allows Abenomics to get away with its extravagant optimism: The deterioration of Japanese universities and the consequent decline of serious thinking. “Japan is back” makes a ringing slogan but begs the question: Back where?