• Kyodo

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Business sentiment rose in December among workers in Japan with jobs sensitive to economic trends, reaching their highest level in 16 years, as confidence among retailers grew toward the year-end holidays amid relatively subdued coronavirus case numbers, government data showed Wednesday.

The diffusion index of confidence in current conditions compared with three months earlier among “economy watchers,” such as taxi drivers and restaurant staff, rose 0.1 point from November to 56.4, the highest reading since December 2005, according to the Cabinet Office.

The figure, further improving from the eight-year high in November, advanced for the fourth consecutive month. It was the second-highest level since comparable data became available in January 2002.

A reading above 50 indicates that more respondents feel conditions are improving than worsening. The office polled 2,050 workers from Dec. 25 to Dec. 31, of whom 1,796, or 87.6%, responded.

The omicron coronavirus variant was first confirmed in Japan on Nov. 30 and its first community transmission on Dec. 22 in Osaka Prefecture, just before the survey was conducted.

The office maintained its assessment of the economy from the previous month, saying, “The economy is picking up though concerns remain over the coronavirus pandemic.”

While sentiment among eateries declined 6.1 points from the previous month to 62.1, that of retailers rose 3.0 points to 56.7.

Many workers seemed to be heartened by more people going out for the Christmas and New Year holidays, a government official said.

A department store worker in the south Kanto region, eastern Japan, said customers are returning since the latest state of emergency has been lifted, noting “solid sales of formal wear and robust stay-at-home demand such as for Christmas cakes and osechi New Year dishes.”

On the northern main island of Hokkaido, a travel agency worker said new bookings are increasing due to “recovering demand” for trips with people returning to their hometowns or taking winter excursions such as for snowboarding.

However, some workers voiced concern over gasoline and kerosene prices remaining at high levels and uncertainty over the omicron variant, the survey showed.

“We’re worried that expenses for dining out and traveling will be curbed because of the spread of the omicron variant and price hikes for fuel and food items,” said a hotel staffer in the Hokuriku region in central Japan.

Looking ahead, the diffusion index gauging business sentiment in the coming months fell 4.0 points for the second straight month of decline, to 49.4, falling below the boom-or-bust line for the first time since August, when parts of the country were under a COVID-19 state of emergency or quasi-emergency.

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