Japanese lack the yen to spend Cautious consumers exacerbate trade gap

May 26, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO — Tokyo--At Kit Kitazawa's ticket stall, the good news is that good times have a bad side.

Mr. Kitazawa is one of an estimated 120 Tokyo entrepreneurs who run a kind of specialized secondhand business. They sell unused discounts, in the form of low-priced tickets and special-price coupons issued to employees of railroads, department stores and other big companies.

Mr. Kitazawa sees his stand as an early warning system for the latest in Japan's much-publicized consumer boom. When Japanese shop for secondhand discounts even more avidly than usual -- as he says they are doing these days -- it's a sign that consumers are tightening their belts.

"The first four months of this year have been the busiest I've ever seen," Mr. Kitazawa said recently, while people lined up five deep to do business with him and two clerks. He's been selling tickets at one spot or another near Tokyo's commuter-crammed Ueno rail station for six years.

What is good news for Mr. Kitazawa is bad news for the Tokyo planners and Washington negotiators struggling to control the U.S. trade deficit. Their job is to get Japan's savings-oriented people to become consumers who can whittle away the deficit by buying U.S. exports. The deficit has been a thorn in Tokyo-Washington relations for most of the past decade.

Now, the question is whether Mr. Kitazawa's booming trade signals the beginning of the end of the consumer boom -- or merely a pause.

Over the last half of the 1980s, the Japanese struggled with, but eventually seemed to come to terms with, the reality that they now live in the richest age their country has ever known.

In the process, they became consumers on a scale they had never before contemplated, a powerful force that helped to reduce the trade surplus with the United States from about $51 billion 1988 to about $40 billion last year.

Despite prices that shock foreigners visiting here from the products' home countries, items from American hamburgers to French perfumes have begun to sell at an accelerating pace.

Those goods still do well, but with the consumer boomlet weakening and the dollar strengthening steadily since late last year, making U.S. goods more costly here again, Japan's trade surpluses have begun to creep upward again.

And Japanese consumers seem to be going back to fretting that there may be a dark lining inside their silver cloud.

One reason, says Mr. Kitazawa, using a single Japanized English word, is "Infureishyon." Inflation.

Metropolitan Tokyo's consumer price index for January was 4.2 percent higher than the figure for January 1990. And over the next three months, the index was more than 3 percent higher than the 1990 figures.

That is not much by world standards, and everybody knows prices are notoriously high in Tokyo.

But Japanese are used to having inflation rates lower than most countries would believe. Using each country's own currency and 1980 as a base of 100, Japan's consumer price index stood at 119 at the end of 1990, compared with 151 in the United States and 172 in Britain, Japanese government reports show.

Coming on top of last year's spectacular crash of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Mr. Kitazawa said, the news of annual inflation rates above 4 percent for even one month scared people into watching their yen again.

About 24 percent of the Japanese surveyed by the Yomiuri newspaper recently thought their lives worsened in the past year; only 9 percent thought they got better. And 30 percent thought things would get still worse, compared with 19 percent who thought they would get better. For the first time in five years, the figures on both counts reversed direction from earlier polls.

In a country that steamed into its 53rd consecutive month of powerful economic expansion last week, with full employment and an economic growth rate that is the envy of most of the industrialized world, pessimism like that may seem puzzling.

But Yasushi Mieno, governor of the Bank of Japan, which has been deep in a tight-money policy for nearly two years, insists that it's still necessary to keep the brakes on. A powerful economy means inflation is still a threat, despite slowing growth. Last month, the Bank of Japan and Germany's Bundesbank, which is also worried about inflation, ignored appeals by President Bush for lower interest rates to help pull the United States out of recession.

Among ordinary Japanese, the change of mood reaches beyond opinion polls into the behavioral changes that create economic statistics.

In each of the last three months of 1990, the average Japanese jTC household spent less on consumer goods than it had in the same month a year earlier. That marked the first full quarter with figures like that since before the consumer boomlet began in the mid-1980s. Household consumer spending was down 0.4 percent in October, 3.4 percent in November and 0.8 percent in December.

The national and personal savings rates eased again last year but remained the highest in the industrial world.

While their incomes rose a full percentage point or more in every salaried and wage-earning category, Japanese families trimmed spending, managed to offset the stock market crash and achieved a net addition of 5.6 percent to their average savings, for a new total of about $77,800 a household by the end of 1990.

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