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Uncertain Times Shake Japan’s Confidence, Stir Its Creativity

January 28, 1994

TOKYO (AP) _ As Japan enters the fourth year of what may be its worst recession since World War II, it is a nation engaged in soul-searching.

The sense of perplexity can be read in the titles of some of the latest bestsellers: ″Questioning Japan’s Direction,″ ″Japanese Industry: Conditions for Recovery,″ ″The Great Crash Syndrome: A Survival Manual,″ ″Blueprint for Japan’s Reconstruction.″

Gone is the almost arrogant confidence that surfaced during the ″bubble″ years of the booming late ’80s, when land and stock prices soared and some elsewhere feared Japanese corporations were on the verge of taking over the world economy.

Now, with Japan’s political world in disarray and the nation’s leadership apparently at a loss over how to rescue the economy, that confidence has been replaced by uncertainty.

Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s failure last week to win parliamentary approval of landmark political reform legislation - one obstacle standing in the way of emergency economic measures - deepened fears that things might go from bad to worse, sending stock prices spinning.

News reports today said Hosokawa and the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats reached a last-minute compromise on the reforms, ending an impasse that had threatened to bring down the government.

The conventional wisdoms - that land and stock prices almost always head upward, that major corporations never fail, that their employees never get laid off, that going to a top school guarantees an elite job - are proving false.

″Virtually all Japanese systems and practices are being questioned today,″ says Kyoto University economics professor Takamitsu Sawa.

Doomsayers say it could get worse.

″A nation unable to reform itself is headed for decline,″ wrote Yasuhiko Shibata in a recent commentary for the newspaper Yomiuri. ″The prolonged recession shows that the economy is not suffering from a temporary slump, but rather is in danger of collapse.″

Although many others believe the situation is not so dire, the sense of pessimism extends from the top levels of corporate management to college graduates searching for their first jobs.

New year surveys of top company presidents found most agreeing that economic recovery was unlikely until late in the year, if at all.

To the casual observer, Japan’s apparent affluence can be misleading. Traditionally reticent, Japanese tend to keep personal misfortunes to themselves.

On closer inspection, however, even Tokyo’s landscape provides examples of how good-time dreams have given way to the harsher realities of the bottom line.

In Tokyo’s Akihabara, the Shangri-La of computer and audio buffs, a wide lot cleared to make room for a glitzy electronics bazaar has been turned into a parking lot.

In Jiyugaoka, a Tokyo suburb, Sachiko Tajima hangs out daily lunch menus, working longer days to make up for lost business at night, when her shop serves only high-class sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, or beef fondue.

The current recession is uniquely painful for the thousands of Japanese losing ″lifetime employment″ in their early 50s, just as their children are reaching college age.

Those children were born during Japan’s first ″oil shock,″ when the Arab oil embargo drove home to the Japanese the fragility of their economic miracle, a success based on importing raw resources and then selling them to the rest of the world as the best products at the cheapest prices.

Japan tightened its belt and pulled through that and several other crises, barely breaking the breakneck pace of its economic growth.

Now that Japan’s traditional markets have matured, and fewer people at home or abroad are buying its products, companies are reluctantly letting people go. Albeit slowly, unemployment has climbed to a six-year high.

Just a few years ago, corporations desperate for college graduates were sweetening job offers with sports cars and overseas trips. The ″bankruptcy shock″ of the 1990s finds graduates struggling to sell themselves to corporate recruiters.

″Students are very worried. The outlook is dark,″ says Tsuneki Murayama, 25, of Bee Board, a private job consulting agency in Tokyo.

Murayama believes that in the future success will depend not on getting a ″good″ job with a big-name corporation, but on being a self-starter.

″Unfortunately, the education system only teaches people to be conformists, when they really need to be taught self-reliance,″ Murayama says.

That is the same message Seichi Noguchi has for people who call his bankruptcy hotline.

″You can’t just weather the recession and expect the situation to return to normal,″ Noguchi says. ″The times have changed. People have to take responsibility for their futures.″

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