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Tokyo Snapshot: As Year Ends, Recession Chills Ginza’s Glitter

December 29, 1993

TOKYO (AP) _ To Yuji Ishimaru, Japan’s top corporations aren’t just a bunch of skyscrapers downtown. They are living, breathing entities. And at night, they drop by his neighborhood, the Ginza, to spend their money.

″If you want to know how Japan’s economy is really doing, all you have to do is watch the Ginza,″ Ishimaru said from his office overlooking the famed up-market district.

So, how is it doing? ″Terrible,″ sighed Ishimaru, executive director of the Ginza Street Association. ″Just terrible.″

To the less astute observer, the evening scene below doesn’t look half bad. The roads are bumper-to-bumper with taxis and shiny black limousines, the department stores are decked out in glitz all silver and gold, yearend shoppers and partygoers crowd the sidewalks.

The same could be said of Japan in general. On the surface it has managed to hide the miseries of a three-year-long recession that is the worst to hit the country in decades and appears likely to last well into the coming year.

Headlines tell of sinking profits in just about every industry, of a roller-coaster stock market, unemployment at its highest in more than six years.

Prophets of doom are cashing in with such current Top 10 best-sellers as ″Super-Unemployment″ and ″How To Survive the Depression: A Reader.″

Even so, guests at posh cafes still dine on cakes topped with flakes of real gold. More than 80,000 merrymakers visited Tokyo Disneyland on Christmas Day alone, and it is virtually impossible to get a reservation on the express ″bullet″ trains heading out of Tokyo, at least until the holidays are over.

But Ishimaru says such conspicuous consumers are only a mirage, a fleeting patch of blue on a dark, stormy horizon.

″See that department store,″ he asks, pointing grimly out his window. ″Profits down for 20 months straight. Or those high-class night clubs over there? They’re being wiped out. Everybody but McDonald’s and the people selling lottery tickets is hurting.″

However, while Ishimaru sees the Ginza as proof that Japan’s economy is anemic, he says it’s not yet ready to roll over and die.

″You see shoppers out on the streets because they are still getting their paychecks and year-end bonuses? They can afford to buy presents for their kids or have a few drinks with friends,″ he said.

What they can’t afford anymore is the high-powered, deep-pocketed business entertainment that inflated Japan’s economy in the ″bubble″ days of the late 1980s - the lifestyle the Ginza feeds on.

At the height of the boom, which ended in 1990, prices of land and stocks skyrocketed in a frenzy of speculation fed by easy credit.

A closet-sized plot of land in front of the Ginza’s venerable Kyukyodo, a stationery and incense shop, soared to an official estimated worth of 33.5 million yen, or $252,000, the most expensive in Japan and possibly the world. Its actual market value was believed to be much higher.

Ginza landowners complain that although market values have sagged with the economy as a whole - the Kyukyodo plot officially has devaluated by more than 4 million yen, or $36,000, per square yard - they still face extremely heavy property and inheritance tax burdens.

On Ginza back streets, where corporate Japan entertains its guests with some of the country’s most expensive nightlife, high rents and an increasingly tightfisted clientele are forcing many bar owners out of business.

The current reformist government’s policy of avoiding wheeling and dealing in the traditional swank teahouses of the area hasn’t helped.

Some of the neon lights lining the sides of buildings once filled with high-class bars now are turned off at night because their owners have moved out. Hostesses accustomed to drinking the best champagne with their customers are now learning to settle for domestic whiskey.

One of the Ginza’s entrepreneurs, nightclub-owner Fumie Goto, used the money she tucked away during the boom years to fund a two-year tour of Europe, which she began just before the bubble burst. Now back in the Ginza with a new bar, she is struggling to stay afloat.

″First thing I did when I got back was buy a condo and set up a business,″ she said. ″Now, one year later, the value of my house has dropped by $150,000 and the only big spenders I get at the club are French diplomats.″

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