They've never had it so bad

Two weeks ago the Japanese barely recognised the word `recession'. Now, in the temples, the fish markets, the banks and the bars, its meaning is painfully obvious. Richard Lloyd Parry reports from Tokyo
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Asakusa Kannon, in the heart of old Tokyo, is one of the most famous temples in Japan, but it owes its renown as much to fun and naughtiness as to reverence. In the old days the temple area was alive with entertainers such as fortune tellers and performing dwarfs. People come from all over the country to browse in the traditional shops in the arcade leading to the temple.

If you are after a Samurai sword, brocade kimono sashes, or various dried seaweeds, the Asakusa temple area has always been the place to visit. Later, you could slip into the temple itself for a brief prayer. But in the last two months, a change has come over the area.

The shops are empty, and when people pass through now, they do not linger over the displays of paper umbrellas: they walk down into the temple compound, with its five-storey pagoda and huge vermilion worship hall. Here they bow and waft smoke over themselves from huge cauldrons of burning incense.

"They come here to pray for an end to the depression," says Masatoshi Miyashita, the fourth-generation proprietor of Miyashita Brocade. His sales are down by a quarter, and he can lower his prices no further and remain profitable. The brocade sashes and belts are accessories for kimonos which these days are worn only for grand occasions, such as weddings - but people no longer throw big parties.

His neighbour, Michihiko Sugawara, also has problems selling his bamboo and paper umbrellas - and faces an additional difficulty: the growing reluctance of Japanese banks to lend money. "Ten years ago, the banks would come to you and ask to lend you money," he says. "Now you have to go to them, and they take a lot of convincing." In the Otori Jinja, a nearby Shinto shrine, visitors attempt to bypass the bank manager and write their prayers on wooden tablets. One man prays for a job; another for money to buy a house; half the prayer plaques contain requests for good business.

It is a week now since the Japanese government admitted that, after eight years of "slow growth", "stagnation" and latterly "zero growth", the country has finally slid into full-blown recession. On paper, the figures are clear: GDP is down more than 5 per cent; unemployment up to 4.1 per cent; and - apart from this week's intervention by the US Treasury - the currency is losing its value by the day. The rest of the world is worried; today, finance officials from the G8 countries will gather in Tokyo to plead with the government to do something about the crisis before it begins to upset the economies of Europe and America. But in Japan the recession is elusive; in central Tokyo you can go about your business without ever coming face to face with it.

The economic troubles here are in a completely different league to those of Indonesia, where shame and anger at the collapse of the South Korean dream has manifested itself into a wounded determination to fight back. It is not even like the recession that hit western Europe in the early Eighties, leaving industries ravaged and communities washed up and jobless. Visitors, battered with with apocalyptic headlines about the collapse, are amazed when they arrive in Tokyo and find what still feels like one of the richest, most fashion-conscious and materialistic cities in the world.

So far, there are still several degrees of separation between the Japanese and their recession. Among the shopkeepers in the temple, everyone knows someone who has been sacked, although none of the shops are going under yet. But the brooding presence of the slump has become universal. Gloom is seeping slowly down the economy - from the banks to heavy industries, from big trading houses down to the quiet backwaters of the economic network, such as the shopkeepers of Asakusa Kannon.

Even assuming the unlikely best - a co-ordinated programme of reform, leading to recovery in the next five years - it is clear that things will never be the same again: one by one, in the last three years especially, Japanese assumptions about their security and place in the world have been discredited. The concept of jobs for life, part of the post-war social contract on which the country's remarkable recovery was based, has gone, and the wave of closures and lay-offs have led to the adoption of new euphemisms which had no equivalent in Japanese: one of the most common words in any newspaper these days is risutora, a Japanese abbreviation of the English catchphrase "restructuring".

Those who have held on to their jobs have been deprived of that other Japanese institution: the company bonus, usually given out in the summer or New Year, and once so reliable that workers considered it a component of their annual salary. "I was going to buy a car this year, and that's all off," says Hiroshi Udagawa who works at Tokyo's huge wholesale fish market. "I've got friends who took out huge mortgages and banked on the bonuses to pay them off." And those who do have money in hand face another problem: where to keep it?

Last year, another unwritten law was violated when a number of middle range banks and securities houses went under, broken by the plunge in the stock market and the weight of unrepaid loans. The government's promise to protect depositors doesn't reassure everyone - and, in any case, with some interest rates at less than one per cent, there is hardly anything to be gained from banks anyway. One of the very few booming markets in Japan these days is that in miniature safes small enough to fit into a drawer or on a bookcase. The country's biggest manufacturer is selling 800 safes a day, as Japanese choose, literally in some cases, to keep their money under the bed.

Crime is stealthily increasing, especially among the young, and recent figures show an alarming increase in the number of suicides. Last year the number of people who killed themselves for "economic reasons" increased by 18 per cent, according to police figures. In the northern island of Hokkaido, where unemployment is highest, the number of economic suicides had gone up by half.

In the most chilling case this year, three businessmen checked into a hotel wearing identical new white shirts and hanged themselves with identical cords in identical adjacent hotel rooms. Japanese life insurers are almost unique in their willingness to pay out after suicides; in their notes, the men specified that the money should go not to their families, but to pay off their company debts.

The consumer funk in which the country finds itself is seen in numerous small ways. Japanese night life culture, with its small bars run by motherly "mama-san", is under threat from the cuts in company expense accounts. Once, no business deal was complete without a string of late-night drinking and karaoke sessions, extortionately expensive but paid for by the firm.

Now entertainment budgets have been cut, and the businesses which depended on them have been decimated. The fish market is suffering from the decline in sushi consumption, and the preference among customers for cheaper cuts of raw fish.

There has been a boom in an unpleasant brew known as happoshu - a "beer- like malt beverage" which is 50 per cent cheaper than the real thing, thanks to a tax loophole. It looks like beer, tastes almost like beer, and makes you fart like a hippopotamus. A Japanese magazine recently ran a hilarious feature entitled "The things people do to save yen during the recession" which unintentionally brought to mind the spoof "Reader's Tips" that appear in Viz magazine.

One 26-year old woman admitted that she waits until closing time to go to the supermarket, when the prices of the day's fresh vegetables are dropped to get rid of them. And a salesman said he'd saved money previously spent on dialling directory enquiries - "instead," reported the magazine, "he looks up the numbers in the telephone directory." Stranger still, a female bank clerk has taken to collecting the small packets of tissues which are handed out on every street corner in Tokyo as a form of advertising. "I soak them and produce my own handmade paper, which I press into elegant postcards," she chirruped. "It's quite enjoyable."

What all economists agree on is that the causes of the crisis are deep- rooted and there are no quick solutions: Japan can either continue on its present course of stagnation, or reform its debt-laden and protected financial system - a process which will itself lead inevitably to the failure and collapse of inefficient companies. The country's politicians appear paralysed by the prospect, but their failure to act has galvanised no political reaction, other than apathy. Next month there will be elections for Japan's Upper House. Thanks partly to the weak and divided state of the opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party of prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, appears likely to perform very well, although with a record low turn-out.

At root the problem is psychological. Despite the hard times, Japanese are still rich by world standards. The country's debt problems are internal; it has no foreign borrowing. The problem is not there is no money, but that it is being locked away in safes by people too scared or apathetic to spend. Economists are talking seriously about the boost to the national psyche which could be provided by Japanese success in the World Cup - when the national team faces Croatia in Nantes this afternoon, there will be more at stake than a place in the quarter finals. If, as expected, they lose, it is hard to see what can be done, other than lighting a stick of incense, crossing the fingers and saying a little prayer.