In Japan, rising yen a mixed blessing

March 10, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Thanks to the decline of the dollar and the appreciation of the yen, the already astronomical prices in Japan have jumped into a higher orbit.

For many Japanese, this is a most welcome event, and they have already chosen a new financial strategy, said Kiyohide Sato, manager of a travel agency outside Tokyo. They have caught "Hawaiian fever": Airline ticket sales for trips abroad are soaring, because the strong yen makes a trip to Honolulu cheaper than a short hop within Japan.

Foreigners, however, face problems.

The $100 steak now costs $110; $40 will buy a tube of hot-red lipstick.

"Some of the foreigners who come here tend to be rich, like the king of an oil-producing country," said Masakatsu Yamashita, manager of the Zakuro Restaurant in Akasaka, an establishment the locals always recommend to visitors.

"We also have English and American customers who come and read the menu and go home without eating dinner."

New immigrants -- even those warned about the vagaries of currency exchange rates -- express amazement. Penny Spring, newly arrived from London, discovered at a grocery store that $12 would buy 17 strawberries. "At the hotel we were staying in," she said, "it was the same price for only three."

Few of the Westerners even bother trying to buy anything other than food.

"You are not even tempted to walk into a store," said Isabelle Evans, who recently moved from Connecticut to live here for the third time in a decade. "It's not like it used to be."

The lucky are paid in yen, not dollars or any other currency. Ahmed Ashfaq, a Pakistani working in a restaurant, is far from wealthy. But his weekly paycheck is in yen, and the portion he sends to his wife and three children in Pakistan has become all the more valuable.

Dana Beckelman, a university teacher, has been paid the same number of yen each week since she was hired in March 1993. Within two months, the change in exchange rates gave her a $3,000 raise.

The windfalls are unlikely to last, however. The high yen is hurting Japan's economy, and cutbacks have begun.

Roberto Bessin, for example, came to Oketo-Chu, a town in northern Japan, in 1992. He arrived with his wife, an English teacher. He was hired by a municipality to bring large sculptures to the town, and his wife taught in a high school. Their children attended elementary schools, and everyone in the family was part of the town's effort to become more worldly.

But Oketo-Chu is a farming town, and the higher yen has driven up the farmers' costs and shrunken their market. And the jobs given to Mr. Bessin and his wife now seem like the largess of a different era.

"I have noticed a hardening of attitudes," Mr. Bessin said. "There is great resentment, a feeling that internationalism might not be worth the cost."

His contract and his wife's expire this summer. Neither will be renewed. And neither of the Bessins will be replaced.

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