National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

In uncertain times, Japan opts to save

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

A funny thing happened on the way to the marketplace. The crowd thinned out. Consumption? Been there, done that. Enough.

It’s a watershed. Minimal consumption equals a minimal economy — which equals what, long-term? The dreadful deprivation of the 1930s and ’40s fed a consumption boom as prosperity returned in the ’50s and ’60s. The aspiration was clear: a middle-class lifestyle symbolized by the “three Cs” — car, air conditioner, color TV. By the early ’80s some 90 percent of Japanese felt they’d arrived. Frenzied, frivolous consumption characterized the “bubble” years that followed. The bubble burst in the early ’90s. The “lost decade” became lost decades. Today economists debate whether they are over. Some indicators are up, others down.

Hiring and wages are up, consumption is down. It doesn’t compute. Or then again, muses the business magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai, maybe it does.

Central to Abenomics, the reform package touted by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is the “virtuous circle.” Loose money would spark a corporate resurgence, creating jobs, raising wages, stimulating spending. As big business revived, so would small business. Jobs for job-seekers, good pay for hard work, eager buyers for proliferating products — and so on, all the way back to the ’80s, hopefully minus the crash landing.

It would take two years, Abe confidently predicted four years ago. What went wrong? Nothing, say the government and the Bank of Japan. Two years was over-optimistic; otherwise, Abenomics is on course. Unemployment is 3 percent, the lowest in years. Salaries are rising, albeit slowly. Consumption is just around the corner. Patience.

It’s starting to wear a bit thin even among optimists, Toyo Keizai finds as it makes the rounds of supermarkets, clothing retailers, restaurants, department stores and so on and hears tales of economic languor everywhere, the conspicuous exception being convenience stores, which seem to be holding their own.

Major corporations, to be sure, are prospering, but it’s not trickling down. Consumer spending is 60-odd percent of the Japanese economy. Stagnant, it holds the whole economy hostage.

What’s holding consumers back? Two things, says Toyo Keizai: demography and anxiety — to which might be added a third, satori.

Demography, of course, refers to the rapidly aging and declining population. The biggest spenders are aged 15 to 64. That population sector declined 3.4 percent between 2011 and 2016. The swelling elderly population does not benefit from rising wages, and from where they sit the future looks anxious indeed. Will the pension system that sustains them collapse? Will they need ever more expensive care and medication as they age? Consumer spending amid such uncertainties would seem irresponsible. Better to err on the side of caution.

Global insecurity only heightens the sense of being adrift. The year just past rattled complacency. The catastrophic Kumamoto earthquake in April, the hyper-severe typhoons of August, political upheavals from Britain’s exit from the European Union to the election of maverick U.S. President Donald Trump, have a psychological impact not confined to those directly affected. The climate, the world, life itself are changing rapidly and incomprehensibly, and not for the better. Money in the bank represents security. But money in the bank does not fuel the economy.

Young people too, Toyo Keizai notes, are spending less. They too are anxious about the future. Those now in their 20s never knew the bubble. They’d be hard-pressed to imagine it. They grew up in tense, penny-pinching times, witnesses from childhood to expanding part-time and shrinking full-time employment. Will their own livelihoods be secure? Will they get stuck in one of the notorious burakku kigyō (black companies) whose working conditions amount to a kind of slavery? Will they earn enough to pay back university loans, or support infirm parents as the life expectancy soars?

Who, weighed down with such thoughts, feels like splurging? “Yes, but,” an Abenomics apologist might say, “look at housing” — and the point must be granted: Home purchases are up, backed by rock bottom interest rates that make debt seem a less daunting burden. Maybe too much so. You sign the papers and reality sets in — shown by the fact, says Toyo Keizai, that families with housing loans spend 15 percent less on consumer items than families without. One sector’s gain is another sector’s loss.

Economic planning is one thing on paper, another thing entirely in the marketplace where living, breathing, unpredictable people jostle each other, never reacting quite as the planners expected. Working women, for example, were supposed to buy more as their income rose. Did anyone consider that their work, combined in many cases with child rearing, would leave them no time for nonessential shopping? Less interest in it too, apparently, as job satisfaction fills the void once filled by consumption.

The possibility that steals into view is that consuming for the sake of consuming — consuming for fun, pleasure, leisure and status — has, in Japan at least, had its day. A name for the new era lying ahead might have some relation to the word “satori.”

In 2010, a book by journalist Taku Yamaoka sparked talk of a “satori generation.” What Yamaoka had noticed, to his dismay, was that young people don’t seem to want anything anymore. He titled his book “Hoshigaranai Wakamonotachi” (“Young People Who Don’t Want Anything”). What he described was no religious overcoming of desire but rather a languid indifference, shaped by economic constraints, to anything that costs money; also to a lot that doesn’t — love, for instance.

Toyo Keizai offers a variation on that theme. The smartphone, it suggests, offers so wide a portal to a virtual reality cornucopia as to make virtual consumption, virtual travel, virtual anything, more attractive— certainly less troublesome — than anything the so-called real world can tempt us with. An economy premised on insatiable desire may be facing its moment of truth: Desire is not insatiable.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and, just out, “Other Worlds.”