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Profile: Kawabatas in Japan spending cautiously

October 6, 2013

KOUNOSU, Japan (AP) — To understand why people are so cautious with their money five years after the financial crisis, The Associated Press interviewed consumers around the world. Here is a profile of one couple:

Names: Teruyuki and Haruna Kawabata

Home: Kounosu, Japan, a suburb of Tokyo

Ages: He is 36; she is 32

Teruyuki Kawabata is worried he could get laid off, so he lives frugally.

“Jobs for life are a dream,” he says.

He and his wife, Haruna, rarely use credit cards. Their idea of splurging is a nice haircut or occasionally going out for Korean barbecue. They hope to grow their own food on a farm next to their newly built home in Kounosu and live off the land.

Teruyuki is what’s known in Japan as a “contract worker.” He does the same work as a full-time employee but without the job security of one. Japan’s two-tier employment system has drawn fire as unfair, but is increasingly used by companies that want flexibility in an anemic economy to cut staff fast.

Teruyuki works for a major telecommunications company, but wouldn’t give details because he’s afraid for his job. “I’m not sure when my contract will end,” he says. ”... I may get fired tomorrow.”

For all the uncertainty, the Kawabatas took a gamble recently. They took out a mortgage last year to build their home, which is on land that Haruna’s parents own. They borrowed 28 million yen ($280,000) for 35 years at an annual interest rate that won’t climb above 1.88 percent. They say they borrowed because they feared rates could rise.

The move is unusual. Since the financial crisis, Japanese have shed debt, not added to it, despite low rates that have made it cheap to borrow. Per adult, personal debt in Japan dropped 3 percent in the 4 ½ years after 2008, according to Credit Suisse.

In other ways, the Kawabatas are more typical of their generation. Both Teruyuki and Haruna, who works at a department store, were children when Japan’s bubble economy burst more than two decades ago, so they never experienced the boom years of the 1980s. They have little interest in the stock market. They scratch out a living on their modest incomes, saving a little here and there.

“I don’t see a goal in this economy,” Teruyuki says. “Those are the times we are in.”

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