It’s been the most radical cash injection in history — nearly ¥400 trillion pumped into Japan’s economy over more than five years to slay deflation and kick growth into higher gear.
That’s still not enough to save Tomoaki Nagai’s metal parts factory near Osaka, and it’s a similar story throughout the world’s third-largest economy.
North of Tokyo, Hiroyuki and Machiko Hayashi of Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, worry about Hiroyuki’s lack of job security as a wedding photographer. And in Akita Prefecture, taxi driver Takeshi Kikawa struggles to make ends meet when interest rates on low-risk investments are near zero.
Their stories, and those from two dozen interviews with young couples, factory owners, financial planners and taxi drivers from Akita to Okinawa Prefecture reveal a sobering reality for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Abenomics revival plan: The Bank of Japan’s massive monetary experiment just hasn’t been the game-changer Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda was tasked to deliver.
True, some people are breathing a bit easier. Since Kuroda launched the BOJ’s radical stimulus, the economy has grown about 1.2 percent annually, moderately better than its potential rate. The yen’s steep fall versus the dollar, which exceeded 60 percent from its strongest level, has helped the Toyotas of the world, pushing corporate profits to record levels and, earlier this year, stocks to 27-year highs. Worker pay adjusted for inflation has fallen 0.7 percent a year — which is actually progress after years of declining nominal pay.
But the Japanese people’s “deflationary mindset,” partly a result of the dark cloud cast on their economic future by an aging and shrinking population, has proved too tough to overcome. As the focus turns to its end game even though inflation remains only halfway to its 2 percent target, the BOJ’s ultimate job — selling a growth story to the Japanese people — remains unfinished.
Young and hopeful
You can actually count the Hayashis among the more upbeat. They took out a 35-year mortgage to build a new house near Utsunomiya Station last year. An interest rate of 0.7 percent helped, but the biggest reason for their confidence is that Machiko is a teacher in a public high school, which gives her nearly unbreakable job security in Japan’s two-tier labor market, where more than a third of the workforce is largely stuck in lower-paying, temporary jobs.
“I’ll be working until I’m 60, so that really gives me a sense of security,” she said. “But we’ll have some money in retirement, so I’m optimistic.”
Their biggest worry? Hiroyuki’s job as a wedding photographer puts him on the other side of that labor-market divide. Even with unemployment near a quarter-century low, the insecurity that hangs over those workers makes it tough for them to get married and have children, or to plan for any future at all.
This is one reason the lack of deep restructuring of the labor market that was urged by so many economists ranks among the Abe government’s biggest failures — a missed opportunity for lasting, consequential change.
Hiroyuki says his work has given him an up-close view of a growing economic divide in Japan, one reflected in the weddings he photographs. Some people spend lavishly, while others can’t afford a reception at all. Hiroyuki got a raise last year, but “nonregular” workers still have a long way to go to catch up.
“There’s really some growing distance between the upper and lower classes in Japan,” Hiroyuki said.
Lost and found
One person who says she is definitely better off now than when Kuroda took over the BOJ is Mami Ichikawa, a financial planner at Mitsui Sumitomo Aioi Life Insurance Co. in Tokyo. Ichikawa says she feared a dark future when she lost her sales job after the global financial crisis, but she began studying investing so she could be better prepared financially.
This led to her current position helping others with financial planning. Her commission-derived income has doubled over the past five years and she’s spending a little more as well, she said.
“Both in terms of my financial situation and time, I have more room to breathe now,” Ichikawa said.
Give a little credit to the BOJ for helping to drive Ichikawa into more aggressive investments, including mutual funds and stocks. Ichikawa says she became convinced that mild inflation is taking hold in Japan, but that interest rates on savings accounts will remain stuck near zero. So she looked for higher returns.
“I thought my savings would keep losing value if left on their own,” she says. That’s just the kind of thinking Kuroda was looking for when he drove interest rates to record lows.
Ichikawa’s experience also shows how a historic labor shortage is helping many workers: It is more possible than ever to switch jobs and careers as companies that would previously hire only fresh graduates find themselves forced to turn to midcareer applicants.
At 39, Ichikawa is a member of Japan’s “lost generation,” which came of age in the long, grim aftermath of the nation’s asset bubble. Many missed out on the entry-level career-track positions that have been so crucial to long-term prosperity in Japan. Now, though, Ichikawa says there are more flexible options for work and for earning extra money, giving her more confidence about navigating the future.
“If you make the effort, you can get results,” she said.
Near Osaka, factory owner Nagai tells a different kind of story: one about a long decline that hasn’t been noticeably slowed by the BOJ’s policies or Abenomics.
While big exporters’ profits have swelled due to a weaker yen, many of the smaller manufacturers such as Nagai who remained onshore and who have traditionally supplied parts to the big ones are struggling.
Nagai, who came to Osaka to join Japan’s postwar industrial revival a half century ago, says bigger companies are relentless in demanding ever-cheaper parts, slashing into his income for years. Every year, more and more shops around him shut their doors, he says.
“I’ve gained nothing from Abenomics,” he said.
Nagai says he’s down to five part-time workers, and even with interest rates at rock-bottom levels it’s too risky to invest in the business. He depleted most of his savings getting through the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Now he’s just holding on.
“I used to think there is no way I will end up at a nursing home but now I’m jealous of those who can afford to get in,” said Nagai, who is 68. “I don’t have that money. I’ll have to work as long as I can.”
In Akita, taxi driver Takeshi Kikawa faces a common struggle among the elderly: making ends meet when interest rates on low-risk investments are near zero. Kikawa lives in the prefecture with the oldest population, lowest birth rate and highest death rate.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, he says, about four out of five passengers are other elderly people going to or from the hospital for appointments. At 73, Kikawa still wants to work as long as possible and lives with the worry that the government will cut his monthly pension payments as it grapples with its massive debt. That puts him in good company. Many people in Japan, including the young, are frugal because of concerns about surviving in retirement.
A robust economic revival — particularly the return of a healthy rate of inflation, a key BOJ goal — could bring some relief to all pensioners by letting the government “outgrow” its debt, the biggest in the world as a share of the economy. But there is no sign of that happening. The BOJ simply can’t fix the demographics that, without deep spending cuts and steep tax hikes, would eventually bring about fiscal ruin.
Kikawa did get some help from the BOJ. Refinancing his home mortgage saved him about ¥30,000 a month — equal to about a third of his pay as a driver. “The cut in the housing payment was huge — it was huge,” said Kikawa, who lives with his wife and son.
Still, he says he has no savings, so he’ll keep working as long as possible, for the money and the discipline it brings to his life. “I have no plan for retirement,” he said.
In holiday destination Okinawa, a place of white-sand beaches, Atsuko Kinjo is among those who have benefited from the most immediate impact of the BOJ’s stimulus program: a dramatic weakening of the yen that drew record amounts of tourists to a more-affordable Japan.
Kinjo and other Okinawa residents say the boom has been good for at least some people there — the economy is better overall, they say, but most of the gains are going to relatively few people.
“With the increase in tourists our guesthouse has also done well, so our life has become richer,” she said.
She and her husband converted the second floor of their home into guest quarters three years ago to help pay for their daughter’s living expenses while she attended university in Tokyo. And now they hope to supplement their pensions after spending much of Kinjo’s retirement money on tuition. Kinjo, who had worked at a local U.S. military base, and whose husband works at a separate one, said living on their pensions alone would have been tough.
These days Okinawa’s shopping streets are full of tourists and several new supermarkets are planned, she said, but while its economy will probably keep growing, those who benefit may be limited to places such as diving shops and convenience stores — many of which aren’t owned by Okinawans.
“Of course, there’ll be a few Okinawans, but overall it doesn’t bring money much to Okinawans,” she said.
For many, the question is what will remain when Kuroda is done. The risk for Kinjo, exporters and everyone else in Japan is that many of the BOJ’s hard-won victories, however modest, could quickly be surrendered.
A prolonged U.S.-China trade war and slowing growth in China, for example, are immediate risks to the export-dependent economy, while tumbling oil prices again threaten gains in stoking inflation. There are also big financial imbalances created over the years of ultraeasy money that could blow up if interest rates return to anything near normal.
However the BOJ’s experiment ends, when the dust settles and Kuroda has left the central bank, future policymakers will still need to face the challenges to growth and living standards posed by a shrinking population that’s also the world’s oldest.
That raises the question: Can the BOJ’s continued injection of trillions of yen ever offset such forces?