Is this our future?
When Consumers Cut Back: An Object Lesson From Japan
By HIROKO TABUCHI
Published: February 21, 2009
TOKYO As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect.
The economic malaise that plagued Japan from the 1990s until the early 2000s brought stunted wages and depressed stock prices, turning free-spending consumers into misers and making them dead weight on Japans economy.
Today, years after the recovery, even well-off Japanese households use old bath water to do laundry, a popular way to save on utility bills. Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming 80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak. And the nation is losing interest in cars; sales have fallen by half since 1990.
The Takigasaki family in the Tokyo suburb of Nakano goes further to save a yen or two. Although the family has a comfortable nest egg, Hiroko Takigasaki carefully rations her vegetables. When she goes through too many in a given week, she reverts to her cost-saving standby: cabbage stew.
You can make almost anything with some cabbage, and perhaps some potato, says Mrs. Takigasaki, 49, who works part time at a home for people with disabilities.
Her husband has a well-paying job with the electronics giant Fujitsu, but I dont know when the ax will drop, she says. Really, we need to save much, much more.
Japan eventually pulled itself out of the Lost Decade of the 1990s, thanks in part to a boom in exports to the United States and China. But even as the economy expanded, shell-shocked consumers refused to spend. Between 2001 and 2007, per-capita consumer spending rose only 0.2 percent.
Now, as exports dry up amid a worldwide collapse in demand, Japans economy is in free-fall because it cannot rely on domestic consumption to pick up the slack.
In the last three months of 2008, Japans economy shrank at an annualized rate of 12.7 percent, the sharpest decline since the oil shocks of the 1970s.
Japan is so dependent on exports that when overseas markets slow down, Japans economy teeters on collapse, said Hideo Kumano, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. On the surface, Japan looked like it had recovered from its Lost Decade of the 1990s. But Japan in fact entered a second Lost Decade that of lost consumption.
The Japanese have had some good reasons to scale back spending.
Perhaps most important, the average workers paycheck has shrunk in recent years, even after companies rebounded and bolstered their profits.
That discrepancy is the result of aggressive cost-cutting on the part of Japanese exporters like Toyota and Sony. They, like American companies now, have sought to fend off cutthroat competition from companies in emerging economies like South Korea and Taiwan, where labor costs are low.
To better compete, companies slashed jobs and wages, replacing much of their work force with temporary workers who had no job security and fewer benefits. Nontraditional workers now make up more than a third of Japans labor force.
Younger people are feeling the brunt of that shift. Some 48 percent of workers age 24 or younger are temps. These workers, who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.
They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.
Young Japanese women even seem to be losing their once- insatiable thirst for foreign fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, reported a 10 percent drop in its sales in Japan in 2008.
Im not interested in big spending, says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. I just want a humble life.
Japans aging population is not helping consumption. Businesses had hoped that baby boomers the generation that reaped the benefits of Japans postwar breakneck economic growth would splurge their lifetime savings upon retirement, which began en masse in 2007. But that has not happened at the scale that companies had hoped.
Economists blame this slow spending on widespread distrust of Japans pension system, which is buckling under the weight of one of the worlds most rapidly aging societies. That could serve as a warning for the United States, where workers 401(k)s have been ravaged by declining stocks, pensions are disappearing, and the long-term solvency of the Social Security system is in question.
My husband is retiring in five years, and Im very concerned, says Ms. Masakis mother, Naoko, 52. She says it is no relief that her husband, a public servant, can expect a hefty retirement package; pension payments could fall, and she has two unmarried children to worry about.
I want him to find another job, and work as long as hes able, Mrs. Masaki says. We must be ready to fend for ourselves.
Economic stimulus programs like the one President Obama signed into law last week have been hampered in Japan by deflation, the downward spiral of prices and wages that occurs when consumers hold down spending in part because they expect goods to be cheaper in the future.
Economists say deflation could interfere with the two trillion yen ($21 billion) in cash handouts that the Japanese government is planning, because consumers might save the extra money on the hunch that it will be more valuable in the future than it is now.
The same fear grips many economists and policymakers in the United States. Deflation is a real risk facing the economy, President Obamas chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, told reporters this month.
Hiromi Kobayashi, 38, a Tokyo homemaker, has taken to sewing childrens ballet clothes at home to supplement income from her husbands job at a movie distribution company. The family has not gone on vacation in two years and still watches a cathode-ray tube TV. Mrs. Kobayashi has her eye on a flat-panel TV but is holding off.
Im going to find a bargain, then wait until it gets even cheaper, she says.