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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?