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Pundits pore over pandemic's impact on employment

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing writer

By now, we have all heard of Abenomics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2012 plan that called for the firing of “three arrows” — an aggressive monetary policy, fiscal consolidation and a growth strategy — to rescue Japan’s economy from a prolonged deflationary spiral.

Almost from the get-go, Abe’s more vociferous critics referred to it in news outlets as “Ahonomics.” (“Aho,” to the uninitiated, means “fool.”)

Now the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is generating more Abe spinoffs. The government’s decision to send a pair of free face masks to each of the nation’s households, at a cost of ¥46.6 billion, was derided as “Abenomasuku” (“Abe’s masks”).

Asahi Geino (April 23), meanwhile, coins a new word to describe the coronavirus-induced economic free fall as “Abenojigoku” (“Abe’s hell”).

The government’s admonitions for citizens to engage in jishuku (self-restraint) as a means of preventing the contagion from spreading are so ambiguous, it’s exceedingly difficult, at this point in time, to gauge the practice’s impact on employment.

Economic pundit Haruhiko Sato nevertheless warns that calamities were likely to arrive in the form of three successive waves. First, for example, Ginza night clubs are expected to close due to a lack of business. Then the beauty salons that the club hostesses patronize are hit by the downturn. If hotels close, the suppliers of vegetables and fish to hotel restaurants, and the taxi drivers who transport travelers and so on are affected, widening the recession.

The second wave is expected to inundate already teetering financial institutions, including some that never fully recovered from the “Lehman Shock” of 2008. The impact will be felt on housing and stock market investments. Deprived of profits, big-time investors will cut back on their dolce vita lifestyles, such as nights on the town and purchases of high-ticket items such as deluxe foreign cars.

The third wave, if it comes, will make the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987 seem like a picnic. People will default on their home loans and hordes of “zombie unemployed” — people who can’t even afford to live out of internet cafes — will wander the streets.

“The sectors suffering most from the self-restraint are tourist-related and food-and-beverages businesses,” Sato says. “New hires will have their employment contracts canceled and regular staff have hours reduced, with no more overtime earnings or, in some cases, actual layoffs. Nonregular workers will have it even worse.”

Economic journalist Hiroko Hagiwara tells the magazine that the government’s ¥108 trillion stimulus can’t be counted upon to function like the joya no kane (the traditional ringing of temple bells 108 times on New Year’s Eve to cleanse away the past year’s troubles).

“Not much of this government pump priming will trickle down,” she warns. “The sole means of survival will be for families to watch closely over their budgets.”

While restaurants offering takeout and delivery services are reportedly enjoying more demand, few sectors of the economy have been untouched by the “corona recession.” Weekly Playboy (April 13) turns its attention to museums, which are regarded as an “enclosed space” and therefore to be avoided for the duration.

From March, Bunkamura in the capital’s Shibuya neighborhood and Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, to name two examples, have been forced to truncate the last several weeks of their exhibitions. This not only cut into admittance revenues but also hurt lucrative sales at the museum shops.

Museums contribute to the economy in other ways. They require trucks to transport exhibition items and have to cover expenses for the staff who accompany roving exhibits. They spend large amounts for promotion, the advertising of events and for security. Insurance for particularly valuable artifacts can run into the millions of yen.

According to a blogger named “Tonii,” who claims to be Japan’s only “art teller,” the Japan Olympic Museum, which opened last Sept. 14 in Shinjuku Ward, was planning major displays for the overseas visitors expected this summer. It has been closed since Feb. 27.

“The museum’s exhibits for next year have already been fixed, so it won’t be able to show the same items in 2021,” he says.

Toyo Keizai (March 28) devotes 35 pages to what it dubs the “Haneda Airport crisis.” In 2018, Haneda was already ranked fifth in passenger volume worldwide, after Atlanta, Beijing, Dubai and Los Angeles International. Thanks to round-the-clock operations and the opening up of new air corridors, Haneda’s capacity is set to be boosted by an additional 50 domestic and international slots per day.

Following a major expansion, Terminal 2 is now handling international flights, and the former International Terminal has been renamed Terminal 3. On April 21, “Haneda Airport Garden,” which is linked to Terminal 3 by a pedestrian passageway, opened for business. In addition to two high-end hotels, the new complex boasts a long-distance bus terminal, rooftop hot-spring bath, and more than 60 shops and 30 restaurants.

The question is, with planes flying nearly empty and even more flights canceled outright, who’s going to use these new facilities? And what will happen to the people hired to work there?

Meanwhile, caffeine addicts have been rattled to find that a large number of Starbucks outlets have temporarily closed shop. The Nikkei Marketing Journal (April 17) reports that some 850 outlets — more than half of the country’s total — have ceased operations. While safeguarding their workforce from contagion has been a strong rationale, demand has also dropped sharply due to fewer people commuting to work. Rival coffee chains Dotour, Tully’s and Pronto are said to have followed suit.

The article added that convenience store chains with self-service coffee dispensers, such as 7-Eleven, have been taking up some of the slack.

“After the coffee specialty shops began closing, we noticed an upsurge in demand,” Seven & I Holdings President and CEO Ryuichi Isaka says.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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