Japan Goes From Dynamic to Disheartened
A DEFLATED CITY
A Deflated City
While the effects are felt across Japan’s economy, they are more apparent in regions like Osaka, the third-largest city, than in relatively prosperous Tokyo. In this proudly commercial city, merchants have gone to extremes to coax shell-shocked shoppers into spending again. But this often takes the shape of price wars that end up only feeding Japan’s deflationary spiral.
There are vending machines that sell canned drinks for 10 yen, or 12 cents; restaurants with 50-yen beer; apartments with the first month’s rent of just 100 yen, about $1.22. Even marriage ceremonies are on sale, with discount wedding halls offering weddings for $600 — less than a tenth of what ceremonies typically cost here just a decade ago.
On Senbayashi, an Osaka shopping street, merchants recently held a 100-yen day, offering much of their merchandise for that price. Even then, they said, the results were disappointing.
“It’s like Japanese have even lost the desire to look good,” said Akiko Oka, 63, who works part time in a small apparel shop, a job she has held since her own clothing store went bankrupt in 2002.
"I feel like I’ve been waiting for 20 years for inflation to come back."
This loss of vigor is sometimes felt in unusual places. Kitashinchi is Osaka’s premier entertainment district, a three-centuries-old playground where the night is filled with neon signs and hostesses in tight dresses, where just taking a seat at a top club can cost $500.
But in the past 15 years, the number of fashionable clubs and lounges has shrunk to 480 from 1,200, replaced by discount bars and chain restaurants. Bartenders say the clientele these days is too cost-conscious to show the studied disregard for money that was long considered the height of refinement.
“A special culture might be vanishing,” said Takao Oda, who mixes perfectly crafted cocktails behind the glittering gold countertop at his Bar Oda.
After years of complacency, Japan appears to be waking up to its problems, as seen last year when disgruntled voters ended the virtual postwar monopoly on power of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, for many Japanese, it may be too late. Japan has already created an entire generation of young people who say they have given up on believing that they can ever enjoy the job stability or rising living standards that were once considered a birthright here.
Yukari Higaki, 24, said the only economic conditions she had ever known were ones in which prices and salaries seemed to be in permanent decline. She saves as much money as she can by buying her clothes at discount stores, making her own lunches and forgoing travel abroad. She said that while her generation still lived comfortably, she and her peers were always in a defensive crouch, ready for the worst.
“We are the survival generation,” said Ms. Higaki, who works part time at a furniture store.
Hisakazu Matsuda, president of Japan Consumer Marketing Research Institute, who has written several books on Japanese consumers, has a different name for Japanese in their 20s; he calls them the consumption-haters. He estimates that by the time this generation hits their 60s, their habits of frugality will have cost the Japanese economy $420 billion in lost consumption.
“There is no other generation like this in the world,” Mr. Matsuda said. “These guys think it’s stupid to spend.”
Deflation has also affected businesspeople by forcing them to invent new ways to survive in an economy where prices and profits only go down, not up.
Yoshinori Kaiami was a real estate agent in Osaka, where, like the rest of Japan, land prices have been falling for most of the past 19 years. Mr. Kaiami said business was tough. There were few buyers in a market that was virtually guaranteed to produce losses, and few sellers, because most homeowners were saddled with loans that were worth more than their homes.
Some years ago, he came up with an idea to break the gridlock. He created a company that guides homeowners through an elaborate legal subterfuge in which they erase the original loan by declaring personal bankruptcy, but continue to live in their home by “selling” it to a relative, who takes out a smaller loan to pay its greatly reduced price.
“If we only had inflation again, this sort of business would not be necessary,” said Mr. Kaiami, referring to the rising prices that are the opposite of deflation. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for 20 years for inflation to come back.”
One of his customers was Masato, the small-business owner, who sold his four-bedroom condo to a relative for about $185,000, 15 years after buying it for a bit more than $500,000. He said he was still deliberating about whether to expunge the $110,000 he still owed his bank by declaring personal bankruptcy.
Economists said one reason deflation became self-perpetuating was that it pushed companies and people like Masato to survive by cutting costs and selling what they already owned, instead of buying new goods or investing.
“Deflation destroys the risk-taking that capitalist economies need in order to grow,” said Shumpei Takemori, an economist at Keio University in Tokyo. “Creative destruction is replaced with what is just destructive destruction.”
Steve Lohr contributed reporting from New York.