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.