Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A bored young man answers his telephone and his face lights up. “Diving?!” he says. “I’ll be there.” In the next scene we see his friends on a pier, happily putting on scuba gear. Then, from the end of another pier, the young man comes running, with only a snorkel.

It’s a TV commercial, not a joke, but obviously the protagonist is meant to look like one. In another spot, he’s invited to go “cycling,” and while his friends all ride big shiny motorcycles, he arrives on a puny mamachari (mama’s bicycle).

These two commercials are for Aiful, a consumer-credit company. The young man is both the butt of the ads’ supposed humor and representative of their target. It’s a strange combination, but if you find it patronizing or ethically objectionable, then it simply means you don’t belong to the demographic it’s aimed at.

These and other commercials for consumer-loan companies now dominate prime time. Just five years ago, however, they were aired exclusively in the wee hours, since the services they sold bore a social stigma. Most people still refer to such companies as sarakin,short for sarariman kin’yu (salaryman financing), a term that retains negative connotations which conjure up images of loan sharks, gamblers in need of quick cash and burly men with punch perms demanding payments — or else.

The infiltration into other time slots isn’t difficult to understand. Broadcasters need all the help they can get, since advertising revenues have been falling recently. Overall ad income decreased almost a full percentage point from 2000 to 2001, and in the same period each of the top five consumer-loan companies increased their advertising outlay anywhere between 20 and 30 percent. Together, these companies spent a whopping 77 billion yen on ads in 2001.

And it worked. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the number of sarakin TV commercials aired in 2001 was four times the number broadcast in 1991, and during that period, the amount of money these institutions lent out tripled.

But there are other statistics. Five years ago, approximately 70,000 people filed for bankruptcy in Japan. Last year, there were 160,000. This increase can be blamed on Japan’s continuing recession and the simple possibility that more Japanese people became aware of bankruptcy procedures. But in his new book, “Sho-hisha Kin’yu (Consumer Financing),” attorney Kenji Utsunomiya estimates that last year there were also between 1.5 and 2 million “latent” bankruptcies, meaning people who were essentially in a bankrupt situation but who hadn’t filed for protection.

Utsunomiya blames this rash of insolvency on several developments. One is the introduction in the mid-’90s of consumer-credit ATMs, where potential borrowers can secure small loans without collateral or guarantors and, more importantly, without the humiliation of having to face a human being when begging for cash. Another is ad campaigns that saturate not only prime-time TV, but also the national newspapers and mainstream magazines.

The purpose of these ads is not merely to inform consumers of loan services, It is also to change the overall image of sarakin, a word that the industry has asked the media to stop using. And because of the industry’s advertising might, the media has obliged. They now use the less loaded term shohisha kin’yu (consumer financing). More importantly, the media seem to be ignoring the economic havoc that the industry is wreaking, especially at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

According to Utsunomiya, most Japanese are given to believe that the majority of bankruptcies occur among people in the middle or upper-middle classes who live beyond their means. However, Utsunomiya shows that bankrupts are mostly lower income people who have become trapped in an cycle of debt. And contrary to myth, sa- rakin users do not borrow money to play the horses or buy electric guitars. The most commonly reported reason for borrowing money is for everyday living expenses, followed by paying off other loans.

The ideal situation for a consumer-loan company is to get clients to borrow money and, once the payment deadline comes around, to get them to borrow again to pay off the previous loan, and so on. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul thus becomes an industry imperative. According to Utsunomiya, the direct-mail campaigns of the top five consumer-loan companies target people who are already in debt, thus implying that these companies share customer data among themselves.

If the “sarakin” label endures among the general public, it’s probably because of the loan shark-level interest rates. In Japan, you cannot charge more than 20 percent for a loan. Consumer-credit company rates go up to 29.2 percent, because while it is illegal to charge that much, no penalty is imposed until the rate reaches 29.3 percent.

Obviously, it pays to take risks. And these companies can afford to, because many sectors of the economy make money off of them, not just the media. Japan’s troubled banks and insurance companies invest heavily in consumer-loan companies. Even foreign financial institutions, who in their home countries would never be able to get away with the kind of usury that sarakin practice as a matter of course, are begging to be let in on the gold mine.

Once again, it just goes to show you can’t underestimate the business community’s willingness to take advantage of people at the bottom. The industry seems to feel that anyone who wants to buy motorcycles and scuba gear just to impress their friends obviously deserves to be taken.

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