Despite the big spender image, Japanese actually love to save


There’s this image that the Japanese are drop-dead, go-all-out kaimono-chūdokusho (買い物中毒症, shopaholics), despite whatever the latest dreary news bulletin on the global recession says. While that may be true, it’s also a fact of our collective lives that the Japanese hate spending, with every fiber of our being.

Call it the Japan paradox, or just plain perverse, but while many of us won’t blink twice at buying some luxury-brand handbag — or blowing ¥10,000 on an Italian dinner, even though we’re on extremely modest incomes — we’re also adept at keeping our wallets tightly shut come flood or tsunami, or even the whirlwind that was Julia Roberts’ first visit to Japan last month. The truth is that the Japanese are better at saving than spending — we have about 1,000 years of poverty and deprivation behind us, while the hankering to buy La Perla lingerie is less than three decades old.

There’s also a notion that wealth in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but flinging one’s money about is tacky and unchic. “Seihin” (「清貧」) has always been a revered term, meaning “clean poverty,” and alludes to a spirit strong enough to resist the triple corruptions of kane (金, money), onna (女, women, but in this case it refers to sex) and sake (酒, alcohol, but in this case it refers to rich foods and excessive drinking).

Not that those temptations were available to all and sundry. Until the nation opened its doors to the West, Japanese society operated on a class system that put the bushi (武士, warrior or samurai) first and shōnin (商人, merchants) last, since cash was considered kegarearu-mono (汚れあるもの, something tainted and dirty) and best left to the iyashii (卑しい, lowly). Many lower-class samurai doubled as hyakushō (百姓, farmers) — both from necessity and on principle (tilling the soil was a sacred occupation) — but rarely did they ever go into business.

In 1887, French naval officer and novelist Pierre Loti wrote in one of his observations of the Japanese that while Western technology never failed to dazzle them, they were much less enthralled by Western wealth.

We owe this ingrained, somewhat curmudgeonly stoicism to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who set up the shogunate in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in 1603, kicked out the Christian missionaries and closed the country to outside influences. He also instilled most of the ideas of bushidō (武士道, the way of the samurai) as we know it today — including frugality, abstinence and longevity — in the ideal samurai lifestyle. Ieyasu lived to make it through the superviolent and chaotic sengoku (戦国, warring states) period of the 14th century — when he finally seized power and unified the country, he was over 70 and all his rivals were dead. Setsuyaku (節約, saving on resources) and keizoku (継続, continuity) were his watchwords; by all accounts he was infinitely patient, deeply strategic and hopelessly boring. Ah, the Japanese temperament! So now you know where we got it from.

Still, the Japanese can get pretty creative when it comes to saving — and a sizable hunk of Japanese culture has been devoted to the intricacies of that art. Classical literature devotes long pages and entire chapters to the state of konkyū (困窮, being squeezed for cash) and making things last. Old rakugo (落語, anecdotal storytelling) jokes almost always contain some aspect of poverty and the strategies for dealing with it. During the time he had his first apartment, my oldest brother came up with a way to make a single yoshi-gyū (吉牛, beef rice bowl from fast food restaurant Yoshinoya) cover two meals a day, for four consecutive days at a time. In our family, that record still holds.

Japanese women are generally thought to be better at setsuyaku than men. The first thing a woman does when she decides to up the numbers in her bank account is to hit the kitchen and make a tezukuri bento (手作り弁当, handmade lunch box) to take to work. This may not consist of anything more elaborate than rice and veggies, but it will save her from having to purchase her midday meal, thus saving anywhere between ¥500 and ¥1,000 a day. That’s a maximum ¥5,000 a week, ¥20,000 a month and ¥240,000 a year.

A close friend openly professes that her hobby is chokin (貯金, saving money), and nothing gives her more pleasure than perusing the pages of her bank book. Upon learning this, men fall over themselves to ask her out and usually propose marriage at the speed of light. There’s a term, “setsuyaku bijyo” (「節約美女」, “a money-saving beauty”), and in the Japanese scheme of things, one can’t just go through life praying and loving and wearing great clothes a la Ms. Roberts. In good times and bad, in sickness and in health, the power to save is the greatest love of all.