Economy's burst bubble flattens Japan's holiday Partygoers hold spending down

December 24, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- For Christmas Eve with a date in 1992, parties a $32-an-hour sing-along rooms are in, and glitzy nights in $800 hotel rooms are out.

For New Year's Eve with friends, beef-intestine-and-vegetable stews are in, and dinner theaters with top-name entertainers are out.

For traditional take-home meals to give moms a rest on New Year's Day, carry-out packs from 7-Eleven are in, and exotic food assortments delivered from expensive department stores are out.

The holiday season hasn't been this subdued in Japan for more than a decade.

With their country two years into its worst slowdown and only its second recession since World War II, millions of Japanese are slamming the brakes hard this holiday season on extravagances that had become the norm in the heady years of the late-1980s "bubble economy."

Dozens of the discos that were jammed with partygoers this time a year or two ago didn't make it as far as this year's holiday season.

Many are vacant, with dirt building up on their windows and taped electrical wires protruding forlornly from their walls. Others have been replaced by less costly forms of entertainment.

At the Hotel Ibis in the Roppongi shopping and nightclub district, a former disco and a boutique have been replaced by a four-story electronic game center, Tokyo's biggest.

"We couldn't have afforded a downtown location before, but now the rent is in our range even in Roppongi," said Okitsugu Ogawa, the center's manager.

A far cry from the usual teen hang-out, Mr. Ogawa's place dresses its male attendants in tuxedos, the women in evening gowns.

Parties of businessmen and couples can fritter the night and the yen away at everything from computerized roulette to a miniaturized horse race with room for 40 bettors.

The place gets around Japan's anti-gambling laws by paying off only in tokens for free plays. If you win more than you can finish playing, the management will keep your extra tokens for you for a month.

The establishment's 15 automated karaoke sing-along rooms have long since been booked for private Christmas Eve parties, at $8 a head per hour and a four-person minimum.

While costlier entertainments founder, Japan's game centers are soaring. Their total take is expected to leap to $4 billion this year from $3.4 billion last year.

But, for the first time in more than a decade, most of this city's top hotels still have plenty of vacancies for Christmas Eve rooms. Two years ago, the last reservations were gone by early June.

Though Christians account for less than 1 percent of Japan's population, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist and Shintoist, merchants and entertainment places used the foreign holiday in the late 1980s as a chance to maximize this country's tradition of year-end gift-giving.

Playing on the problems young Japanese men are having finding women to marry, merchants and hoteliers promoted Christmas Eve as the most romantic night of the year, creating a courtship extravaganza known nowhere else.

Tens of thousands of young men eagerly lined up at hotels every January and February to hand over anywhere from $700 to $1,100 for "Christmas Eve Packages," betting big chunks of their savings on their ability to get dates 10 or 11 months later.

Each package included a fancy dinner with entertainment by top singers and a night in a guest room on a date hotels hadn't been able to fill in previous decades.

To this, thousands of young men added $1,000 or more each in champagne, gifts and flowers for their girlfriends.

Magazines and TV shows named the "big hit" gifts to give.

Young men lined up overnight outside Tiffany's and other prestigious places the day a coveted item was to go on sale.

Men farther back in line were seen in tears when the last of an item they wanted went before they got to the front. Tiffany's selections were badly picked over by this time in past years.

Tiffany's still has its marble-lined shop on the ground floor of the Mitsukoshi department store at Ginza No. 4 Crossing, still the world's highest-priced piece of real estate.

But a walk through the store last week showed plenty of jewelry and scarcely any serious shoppers.

The end of the bubble is reaching into every corner of this year's holiday economy, especially seasonal employment.

The Odakyu and Mitsukoshi department store chains each hired about 30 percent fewer holiday workers than last year. Most other department stores report similar reductions.

Even the post office, which expects to need its full complement of 32,000 temporary workers to handle the year-end and New Year's flood of postcards, felt the difference. Local postmasters used to visit high schools and "cram" schools to find workers and still couldn't fill their holiday staffs until mid-December. This year, they stopped recruiting well before Dec. 1.

Even as far away as Hokkaido, the northernmost big island, hotels report so many adults applying for seasonal work that they cannot accommodate most of the usual thousands of winter-season student applicants.

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