TOKYO -- With all the strength of her 90 years, Chizuko Miyata clutched her crisp, cream-colored coupons and began dreaming of what she would buy with them.
"I'm not so interested in fashion these days," said Miyata, a twinkle in her eye. "So I'm going to use them to buy the things I need in everyday life."
"The aim of these coupons is to boost buying," added Miyata, who had just picked up the coupons that the government is handing out to spur consumption and revive the economy. "I understand that aim. So I'm going to spend more."
If all Japanese citizens were that loyal, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi would have nothing to worry about. But nobody knows whether the scheme -- one of the oddest ideas ever tried to revive a major economy -- will succeed in getting people to spend.
Japan's economy is stuck in its worst recession since the end of World War II, even if there are some signs of progress, and one of the problems has been that ordinary citizens are so anxious about the future that they are saving yen rather than spending. The government has tried tax cuts, but people have tended to save them as well.
So Obuchi and his Cabinet are handing out something that people cannot save: shopping coupons worth nearly $6 billion that expire in August, in hopes people will use them in the next few months.
"This is a very big experiment," said Katsuyuki Hikasa, a senior policy-making official in the Komei Party, which proposed the idea to the governing Liberal Democratic Party. "This is the first such economic experiment done anywhere in the world."
Economists have attacked the plan on many fronts, and few believe it will be very successful. For starters, some say that people will spend the coupons and save an equivalent amount of cash.
In addition, the plan has been a logistical nightmare, and it is proving expensive to administer. The government has also attached strings to the coupons so that residents must mostly use their coupons in their own neighborhoods.
To boost local business, the government had each town and municipality find its own printers, so some coupons are pink, some are blue, some are white, some are cream.
The localities can also set their own rules, within guidelines. So some coupons can be spent at brothels and nightclubs or gambling at pachinko parlors and mah-jongg tables. Others can be used only for purposes that the authorities deem appropriate, such as shops and restaurants.
In some areas, authorities have tried to help small businesses by forcing residents to wait 40 days before they can use their coupons at big department stores, while others have color-coded coupons that restrict spending to ensure that at least half the coupons will be spent at small stores.
The key question is whether the coupons will encourage people to spend more. And the risk is that there are plenty of people out there like Emiko Kawamura.
Kawamura, 41, sees the coupons as a form of financial relief that allows her to expand her rainy day nest egg. With three children, Kawamura is pinching pennies.
"I'm not going to buy anything expensive or big," said Kawamura. "With the coupons to spend, I have extra money. So I don't have to take so much out from my bank account this time."
Keiko Komine, a lively homemaker with two boys, is more like the kind of person the government is hoping for. Komine plans to plunk her $340 worth of coupons into a new bookshelf for her 6-year-old son, who is about to start first grade.
Her children recently learned how to ski, and so she also has plans to squeeze in a short vacation on the slopes.
"I'm not thinking of saving because we have to buy a lot of things this season," said Komine. "I'm hoping to spend the extra money on skiing."
Pub Date: 3/14/99