Japanese hope royal wedding will boost a sagging economy

WHAT PRICE LOVE?

January 23, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- To the dark-suited chamberlains of Japan's Imperial Household Agency, the marriage of a crown prince brings dreams of a long-awaited direct male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

To the silver-haired stewards of Japan Inc., the same marriage brings dreams of high-tech TV sales and flowing bank deposits.

Businessmen set out to make their dreams come true almost the minute the world learned this month that Crown Prince Naruhito, 33, had succeeded at last in his six-year quest for the hand of Harvard-educated career diplomat Masako Owada, 29.

"The royal engagement is the best news of the century," said Rokuro Ishikawa, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The Nippon Life Insurance Co. quickly predicted that the royal wedding, expected in late May or early June, will bring a surge in the number of couples marrying, stimulate purchases of houses and household goods, and add about 0.8 percent to the gross national product.

The wedding will bring too short-lived a surge to end the nation's economic slowdown on its own. But in an economy that has been only tenths of a percentage point into the "negative growth" that defines recession, 0.8 percent could well mean the difference between continuous slump and an early moment of relief.

Individual segments of the economy have geared up quickly. Travel agents have added a "royal honeymoon tour" for couples who marry near the time of the imperial ceremony.

Teijin clothing company is working on a royal blue and purple "royal engagement commemorative swimsuit" for ladies.

When the crown prince's younger brother married in 1990, the Tasaki pearl company, one of several that benefit from the association of pearls with Japan's imperial family, cashed in with more than $40 million in added sales.

The firm expects the crown prince's marriage to bring a still bigger windfall.

From costume dolls to kimonos, virtually every traditional Japanese craft and art is hoping the wedding will bring at least a respite from the slowdown.

Doll makers already have added a crown princess to their lines, in time for Girls' Day, the early-March holiday that is one of the peaks of their retail year.

In Sapporo, on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, one hotel that Princess-to-be Masako recently visited has a weeks-long reservation list for the table where she ate. Her meal has been turned into the "princess menu."

The last time a crown prince was married, in 1959, Household Agency chamberlains and Japan Inc. stewards both got their wishes.

Prince Naruhito's father, who is now Emperor Akihito, created Japan's wedding of the century. He met the daughter of a flour-milling family on a resort-town tennis court and made her today's Empress Michiko, the first commoner to enter the royal family.

The chamberlains' wish for an heir came true a year later with the birth of Crown Prince Naruhito.

The economic-minded stewards of Japan Inc. didn't have to wait that long.

The marriage was so sensationally popular that it instantly touched off its own economic boomlet. Most estimates are that it added 1.2 percent to the year's gross national product.

It turned television, until then a rich man's novelty in Japan, into a mass-produced household commodity. Millions raced out to buy sets in time to watch the ceremony and the open-air procession.

Mitsubishi Bank added more than 2 percent to its deposits that year by offering commemorative CDs with a slightly increased interest rate.

This time, several banks say they are looking at that idea, though none has yet announced anything.

Remembering what happened in 1959, Sony Corp. is hoping a royal wedding may jump-start lagging sales of pricey high-definition TV sets, which so far are a rich man's novelty almost everywhere.

"I'd like to ask Japan Broadcasting Corporation to air the whole wedding ceremony on Hi-Vision [the Japanese version of the new technology]," Sony Corp. President Norio Ohga said.

Another big beneficiary might well be Japan Victor Co. That company is about to introduce HDTV sets at about $4,000 each -- thousands of dollars less than anyone else is asking for the sets.

Among the first to see the possibilities were Japan's recession-plagued paper and pulp companies.

Papermakers experienced surges in 1989 when the crown prince's grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, died, and again in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war. Both events greatly increased sales of magazines and newspapers.

The new wedding will do the same, and it offers papermakers the added chance to market mountains of paper commemorative doodads.

Businesses were so fast off the mark this month that now some are toning down their efforts and their comments.

"We've hung out banners congratulating the couple," a spokeswoman for Tobu department stores said. "But, to be honest, we've decided we'd better be discreet so the public won't think we're being crass."

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