Japan's consumers hooked on plastic after a decade of credit card growth

March 21, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Everybody knows that one of this Asian powerhouse's strengths has been that, unlike Americans, Japanese don't get hooked on credit.

But that was before Japan had a real credit card business.

Now Japanese are coming to grips with more than a decade of high-powered competition to establish real Western-style credit card networks.

And it turns out that what everybody knew was wrong.

So wrong that, not counting home mortgages, the average Japanese now owes $4,200 in consumer debt, $900 more than the average American.

So wrong that Japan's voluntary personal bankruptcies last year were double the 1990 figure.

They are headed for a record this year, after half a decade of decline due to tighter legislation passed in the mid-1980s. The main cause is the aggressive effort of credit issuers to create ever-growing armies of card users.

Lawyers and credit counselors say it is no longer uncommon to see clients who hold a dozen or more cards and owe a year's pay or more on them.

Newspapers publish stories almost monthly about suicides and divorces among people driven to desperation by their spouse's or their own unrestrained credit card use.

The Japan Credit Industry Association listed 166 million cards here last year, three times as many as in 1984. In a nation of 140 million people, that ratio is still lower than that of the United States but already comparable with that of Western Europe.

Voluntary personal bankruptcies peaked at about 24,000 in 1984, as growing numbers of Japanese fell into the clutches of old-fashioned loan sharks.

Laws passed in 1985 and 1986 cut the number by half.

But rising credit card debt reversed the trend in 1988. The 1991 total soared well past 23,000.

Greg Kaufman, an American who is international coordinator for Consumer Credit Clearance Inc., a collection agency, says the blame belongs both to parents, who seldom give their children credit training, and to huge companies, which aggressively make borrowers out of the younger generation in a society more experienced with savings accounts than with credit cards.

"Parents give young children big allowances and ask no help of their college-age children, who often have part-time jobs but are allowed to spend the money on fashions and consumer products," said Shiro Sakamoto of the Japan Credit Industry Association.

"Unlike American students, who usually work to pay part of their own college education and living costs, Japanese students enter adulthood and marriage with no experience at financially supporting themselves," he said.

Starting virtually from nothing in the late 1970s, Japan's credit card companies aggressively targeted the young.

College students still find unsolicited cards arriving in the mail, with credit limits as high as $4,000, more than young office managers in the United States are likely to get when they first apply for a card.

Competing for market share in a suddenly explosive field, card companies did not dare wait for precautions that are normal in the West. Now more than a decade into this growth, Japan still has no national clearinghouse where credit issuers can comprehensively check card applicants, Mr. Kaufman said.

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