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Japanese Consumers, Normally Quiet, Speak Loudly with Votes

October 24, 1989

TOKYO (AP) _ Long-suffering consumers have gained the ear of government with a thundering protest over a new sales tax, but Japan’s nearly lifeless consumer movement still lacks the spirit to kindle indignation against everyday price gouging.

″Japanese consumers could certainly use a break,″ said Masaru Ogawa, director of the America-Japan Society and a newspaper columnist. ″They should learn that they don’t have to take everything the government hands them.″

Japan is an economic giant, but at home people’s purchasing power is midget-sized. Overall, prices in Tokyo are 39 percent higher than New York and 47 percent higher than Hamburg, West Germany.

Prices are driven up by a number of factors, including an inefficient distribution system, common price-fixing, government regulations, exorbitant land prices and import restrictions that keep price competition to a minimum.

U.S. trade officials who recently launched yearlong talks on structural barriers to trade in Japan and the United States pointed out that changes they seek - including a streamlined distribution system and an altered price mechanism - would benefit Japanese consumers as well as U.S. exporters.

″Japan is widely described as a corporation-dominated society, where its members tend to identify themselves more as corporate employees than as individual citizens,″ wrote Masahiko Ishizuka, editor of the Japan Economic Journal. ″A natural consequence of this is that their consumer consciousness has been slow to develop.″

What has raised consumer consciousness is almost universal indignation over Japan’s first consumption or sales tax, implemented April 1.

Although consumer groups, which claim more than 21 million members nationwide, led campaigns against the tax - including collecting 8 million signatures and operating telephone complaint lines - individuals rendered the loudest verdicts with their votes.

Naming the 3 percent tax as a determining factor, voters in summer elections for Parliament’s upper house and the Tokyo Assembly shook up the complacent Liberal Democratic Party by sending many of its legislators packing while electing a raft of women and Socialist Party candidates.

The Liberal Democrats lost their majority in the upper house of Parliament for the first time in 34 years.

Prospects of even more grim results in elections due by summer for the more powerful lower house of Parliament contributed to the resignation in July of Prime Minister Sousuke Uno.

″The people showed their feelings by voting, and this had much more effect than anything the consumer groups did,″ said Shinji Hashimoto, vice secretary-general of the National Liaison Committee of Consumer Organizations.

Ralph Nader, the U.S. consumer crusader, said on a recent swing through Japan, ″The 3 percent (tax) is minimal compared to the indirect price gouging that goes on every day.″

Nader said citizen opposition to the tax may be most useful as a tonic for the moribund consumer movement. He noted that without access to government information, such as that afforded by freedom of information laws in the United States, consumer movements are crippled.

″Now, the ability to turn civic voice into civic success just isn’t here,″ he said, urging a national freedom of information law for Japan.

Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu appears to have taken the citizen uproar seriously. He has said his party will unveil a plan to revise the unpopular tax in November.

But the prime minister’s hand has been forced more by the threat of the Socialists’ emerging power than by the consumer movement, says Eiko Shinozaka, a professor at Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University. ″After the Socialist Party’s election victories, the party simply decided to adopt common sense and stop the tax.″

Kaifu also appointed Sumiko Takahara as head of the Economic Planning Agency, citing her experience as a housewife. Ms. Takahara has been busy visiting consumer groups, who have denounced the tax as undemocratic and unfair, and has promised to seek a complete study of measures to reform the entire tax system.

The consumer groups also used these opportunities to point out price differences between Japan and other countries, the safety of imported food and consumer education.

But, says columnist Masaru Ogawa, ″It will take some time for Japanese to learn what consumerism is all about. As in the old feudal system, people are still dependent on government and industry like the serfs were on their lords and masters. They aren’t used to challenging them.″

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