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Sombre Japan switches to the blues

Businesses are folding and people grasping for any job to get by. And the worst may be yet to come, says David Cairncross
GO BACK in time 10 years, to Tokyo in 1988: to the suburbs of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Roppongi and the after-dark action, to where the crowds are large and lively; to the bars, restaurants and discos crowded with high-rolling fashion victims; to where the fun goes on till late.

Those were the frothy days, you may say, a world away from today's grim recessionary times. Revisit those places now, and you find things, well, actually, not changed all that much. There are not so many really pricey places, perhaps, and it's easier to get into a night club or restaurant. Shinjuku has become the home of a new Chinatown, and a Koreatown as well. Shibuya has a slightly seedier feeling than it did, with reports of children dealing and consuming stimulant drugs. Mobile phones have become a basic fashion accessory.

If you want clear evidence of the recession in Japan, though, you have to look for it. It's on the news all the time, of course, as Japanese news gives plenty of coverage to sombre government reports, heavy with statistics, warning of worse to come.

But for most people, most of the time, it's not much more tangible than that. There is little sign of urban shabbiness or human squalor, and in Tokyo at least it is hard to find an empty shop-front. Large public and private construction projects are much in evidence, even if the results will add to the existing supply of bridges and buildings that nobody needs.

The biggest change is not in the visible environment, but in people's mood. Ten years ago Japan could do no wrong, and on both sides of the Pacific it looked as if America was on the way out and Japan was taking over. But the Japan which seemed unstoppable at the height of the bubble has run into a brick wall, and there is a feeling that the changes that may be needed to get the country moving again may be too painful to bear.

Some businesses are suffering more than others. The hostess bars and restaurants which flourished before are closing down or struggling as companies cut back on their entertainment expense accounts. Government officials who get taken out for the evening are careful to pay their own share, which is another reason for business going downmarket. Department stores, always well staffed in Japan, now seem emptier, as do hotels. More stores are carrying their own branded goods instead of luxury items with prestige labels. French food is out, Italian food in: as one shrewd Japanese foodie put it: "In an Italian restaurant you can get away with a plate of spaghetti." In many smart but not flash neighbourhoods, the fancy little bars which couldn't keep up with the competition have become discount stores.

The content of TV soap operas has changed, too. There is less about the lives of the glamorous, and more grittiness. The art world is having a hard time. The little galleries in the Ginza where artists could have their work exhibited and sold have mostly gone.

The real experts on the recession, though, are the taxi drivers. They may have opinions on everything, but this is something they really do know about. There was a time when taxis were hard to get and might not take you if the driver didn't think you were going far enough. Now the taxis are there for the asking. One driver said he was happy to have got a fare for less than 2,000 yen (pounds 9) after waiting an 75 minutes outside Tokyo station. Another described how he had to hurry to work in the morning, because if he got there late his taxi might be allotted to another driver.

The problem is not just a shortage of fares. A growing number of small and medium businesses have gone under, forcing their former workers to get what work they can. Driving taxis is one obvious option.

But although older workers are anxious about their job security, most young people are less affected. There is no problem finding part-time work in fast-food outlets, so students need not be without pocket money. Finding a regular job after graduating is not as easy, but most manage it.

The job market three years ago was so tight it was said to be "like the Ice Age". There has since been a thaw, but that has meant trying harder and aiming lower for many, especially women. One academic at Tokyo's Hosei University said: "What I've noticed is that a significant number of bright students are settling for cruddy jobs at dubious companies. They perceive that their options are either a lousy job or no job. Sometimes these jobs are so bad that they leave within the first year, preferring to do just about any short-contract job or combination of part-time jobs."

Concern about long-term job prospects is one reason why more students are studying for professional qualifications on the side, although it is not clear whether this helps much. For most students, though, their university years are still, as a best-selling author put it 20 years ago, an easy-going "moratorium" period after years of gruelling preparation for entrance exams and before adult society intrudes and starts demanding payment of the debts it claims it is owed.

A pessimist might say that for Japan in general, where the debts of the bubble years have still to be paid back, the present recession is only another moratorium before the real recession starts.