Recession-spooked Japanese consumers spending less after 1980s 'bubble' burst

April 08, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- "It's snowing," read the first words in the scenario of a made-for-TV movie.

Two years into Japan's slowest economy since World War II, that was too much to ask.

"The director took me aside and told me snow would bust the budget," said screenwriter Shigemi Yamaguchi. "How about a starry night instead, he wanted to know."

Only 18 months separate this Japan from the land where every magazine cover and television screen touted the coming "rijyaa buumu" -- leisure boom.

With the government mandating more time off for millions of six-day-a-week workers and offering juicy incentives for investments in recreation complexes, leisure pursuits were supposed to fuel gigantic new waves of consumer spending.

The restructured economy would be less dependent on exports, government planners said. The "rijyaa buumu" would even help bring in imports, thereby easing Japan's chronic tensions with U.S. and European trading partners.

Three months into 1993, nobody in Japan is talking about a "rijyaa buumu." In fact, scarcely anyone talks much about leisure at all, much less about new waves of consumer spending.

Recession-spooked Japanese consumers spent less than they did a year earlier in eight of the past 14 months. The only thing they're doing much more of with their money is carrying it to the Post Office, where postal savings accounts are up by an unprecedented $272 billion over the past two years despite drastically slowed growth in incomes.

As for trade tensions, Japan's U.S. and European partners are in even higher dudgeon than usual, ever since this country's surplus hit a record $107 billion last year after weak consumer spending here made imports sag while exports rose a bit.

Snow scenes in TV movies have not been the only casualties as the "rijyaa buumu" fizzled.

There has been plenty of snow on Japan's ski slopes, but the resorts are struggling through a season that brought some of them 35 percent fewer skiers than they had in recent years.

New ski slopes, seaside developments and golf resorts now are high on the staggering multibillion-dollar pile of bad debts that began to build up when the "bubble economy" burst at the end of the 1980s.

As corporate profits went a-glimmering, so did the legendary client-entertainment allowances. In the glitzy Ginza shopping and night life district, small clubs and cabarets closed at a rate of six a day during the last three months of 1992.

Corporations also are slashing their once-lavish budgets for sponsoring high-visibility public entertainment.

Combined with drastically slowing ticket sales, plummeting sponsorship budgets mean promoters will book only the surest winners. Concert halls, chronically overbooked a year ago, now sometimes go dark for weeks at a time.

Sometimes, even superstar names don't guarantee full houses. Dec. 20, 1992, became a milestone of the new leisure scene when conductor Andre Previn's heavily promoted "return to jazz" sold barely 210 of the 2,100 seats at Tokyo's Orchard Hall.

Given Japan's web of interlocking connections among communication media, entertainment and retail businesses, imports sometimes become direct victims of the failure of the "rijyaa buumu."

W. K. Nichoson, an American who has done business here for 40 years, described how that happened in one project.

"NHK [the biggest national TV network] was going to do a special on Santa Fe, N.M., this year. My company has a joint project with NHK Enterprises, an affiliate, to follow up with exhibitions of Southwestern art at top department stores, accompanied by sales of native American jewelry in the same stores," he said.

"The first-choice sponsors for the TV special lost some of their advertising budget, and we had to find new sponsors," he said. Advertising sales in Japan were down in every month of last year, by double-digit percentages in November and December.

"Then, we really got blind-sided," he said. "By the time we got rescheduled, floor managers at the department stores were having poor sales of upscale goods. They didn't think they could sell enough of the jewelry to justify the display space."

But not everybody who deals in leisure pursuits is hurting.

Tighter economies mean stay-at-home fun. Nintendo Corp. and Sega Enterprises, the computer-game makers, are both booming.

This turned out to be good news for Ms. Yamaguchi, the movie writer who was finding fewer script assignments and smaller budgets.

Then came a phone call from Sega.

"They wanted scenarios for a game big enough that it would take at least two or three months of two-hour sessions to finish," she said. "I was skeptical, but they said to let my imagination run wild."

Her imagination ran backward, four centuries into Japanese history, to the legendary warlord Nobunaga Oda, whose body supposedly was never found after a vassal assassinated him in 1582.

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