As the global economic crisis hits more and more people, even the richest of the rich are feeling the pinch. Forbes Magazine’s annual list of the wealthiest people in the world, released last month, noted losses even at the highest incomes. In Japan, the top 40 richest Japanese saw their combined wealth drop nearly 23 percent from a year ago. It’s hard to feel much pity for them, though, considering the turmoil suffered by the vast majority of people.
For one thing, the economic crisis is not so bad for everyone. Japan’s richest man, Mr. Tadashi Yanai, the 60-year old tycoon behind Uniqlo who is now the 10th wealthiest person in the world, made his fortune from the sale of affordable discount clothing. Fast Retailing, the firm behind the Uniqlo chain, is reported still posting record sales. Consumer spending remains a powerful force, even if consumers have less and less to spend.
Other mega-high-earners make their living from pachinko (Sankyo’s Mr. Kunio Busujima, No. 2 in Japan), video games (Nintendo’s Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi, No. 3), alcohol (Suntory’s Mr. Nobutada Saji, No. 8), and the Internet (Softbank’s Mr. Masayoshi Son, No. 5, and Rakuten’s Mr. Hiroshi Mikitani, No. 7). The common thread in their accumulation of vast wealth is that it all comes from small pleasures, but very large numbers. Apparently, the rich get richer while the poor get . . . clothes, drinks and an Internet connection.
Of course, the profitable old standbys of real estate, manufacturing and finance still keep many at the top of the wealth pyramid, but what is most striking about Mr. Yanai’s and the other magnates’ continued success is how well they are poised to profit during recessionary times. People still want to dress well and enjoy themselves a little, even when their budgets no longer let them do that lavishly.
The past four years in the United States saw many of the richest Americans starting to campaign to reverse the slide toward vast disparities in income. The same should apply to Japan. Japan can be proud that its economy is still strong enough to produce vast wealth, but should be ashamed that it cannot better protect those whose small decisions on everyday purchases contribute to that wealth.
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