The Global Crisis: Japan - Once, his business could do no wrong. Now he weeps for the shame and loss

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TO SEE a Japanese weep publicly is rare, certainly a man as calm and intelligent as Masatoshi Nakajima.

For more than an hour he has kept his composure, as he talks about his depression, his thoughts of suicide and the mysterious fevers brought on by stress.

When he remembers his former employees - 17 of them, laid off at a stroke - he shakes his head sadly. His face flushes when he speaks of his family, forced to move out of their expensive apartment, his daughter who had to give up university, and his wife, compelled to take a job on a supermarket checkout.

But the thought that moves him to tears is of the friends and clients he never sees any more, because of their embarrassment and his own shame. "For the first time I've felt the reality of losing people: I've had to watch people drawing away from me," he says.

"I suppose that even during the good years, I knew that the boom couldn't last for ever. But I thought that my own life and my own business would be insulated from all that. Now I know it's not true." And in the cafe of one of Tokyo's most expensive hotels, over his pounds 6 cup of coffee, Masatoshi Nakajima weeps.

There is a strange air of dislocation in Japan these days for, despite the current recession, the worst since the war, the country looks much the same as ever.

The glossy sheen of the 1980s has not yet worn off the shiny office buildings and departments stores, or the immaculately dressed people who work and shop in them. But this impression is as superficial as Mr Nakajima's calm, for beneath the surface drastic changes are overtaking the Japanese middle class: all over Tokyo the gloss is coming off at the touch.

Yesterday afternoon, Tokyo's oldest department store, founded in 1662, closed its doors for the last time. In 1991, at the height of the famous "bubble economy", it made 57 billion yen (pounds 305m [at current rate]).

But last year it lost pounds 95m, as the consumers who sustained it for 337 years sensed that the good times were over and stopped spending. On Friday, the government embarked on its latest desperate plan to encourage shoppers - free spending vouchers, pounds 3.8 billion of which will be handed out among the young and elderly.

You understand why when you see them in the job centre of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's biggest boroughs - managers, architects, and engineers, born into the promise of lifetime employment at a single company, suddenly faced with the shocking fact of redundancy.

A man in his fifties weeps as he fills out the application forms; despite a fractional decrease in unemployment last month, the job centre's manager says that in 27 years he has never seen times as bad as this.

Around the corner at the town hall, 200 homeless men queue for dry biscuits. Yesterday it was reported that there are 20,000 homeless people in Japan, up from 16,000 just last summer, and among the cracked pumps and donkey jackets are beginning to appear leather shoes and suits, as former white-collar workers are forced to the edge of desperation.

Meanwhile in the coffee shop of the Ginza Tokyu Hotel, one of the most luxurious and expensive in Japan, Mr Nakajima sits in the corner, describing how his life fell to pieces.

He is typical of those thrown on to hard times, a competent, but not especially ambitious businessman, who none the less seemed unable to do anything wrong. Mr Nakajima's business was fish importing in Tokyo's famous fish market, Tsukiji. His firm, Miyoshi Trading, bought and sold crabs, lobsters and salmon with the aid of frequent short-term bank loans.

The borrowing was a mere formality - after a few years as their customer, Japanese banks would lend him whatever he asked, without collateral, or any detailed business plan. At times his debts would amount to as much as 1.3 billion yen (pounds 7m).

By 1995 this sort of lending habit had left Japanese banks with massive outstanding loans; in late 1997, for the first time in modern Japanese history, a big regional bank went bust, sending shivers throughout the financial industry.

Suddenly, Mr Nakajima couldn't borrow money anymore and within five months he was bankrupt, a process that exhausted all his savings.

At the age of 54, with no experience other than the fish business, and with three children to support, he suddenly had no income. "From the moral point of view, the most important thing was to think about the employees," he says. "But to be honest my biggest worry was my family."

His 21-year-old daughter had to abandon her master's degree and her aikido lessons. His wife took a part-time job in a supermarket where she found herself ringing up the groceries of her friends and former neighbours.

The family moved from their eight-room, pounds 1,600-a-month apartment into four rooms with a rent of pounds 480. "I was a manager," he says, "and I have no special skills, so I worked as a cleaner, and on a construction site." For most of the time, he stayed at home, reading "so that I didn't have to think".

He became depressed, and experienced suicidal flashes. "There was something very psychological happening to my nervous system. I had high fevers without any good reason."

Five years ago, Mr Nakajima didn't know anyone unemployed; now he has eight friends who have been sacked, lost their businesses or been pressured into early retirement.

In absolute terms, there are far more desolate stories in other parts of Asia.

By the end of this year, 130 million Indonesians will be living in poverty, out of a population of 200 million. In South Korea, until recently among the top 10 of the world's richest countries, destitute families have been reduced to putting their children in orphanages. But these are countries with recent memories of hardship and struggle.

In Japan, an arrangement that has been in place for 54 years is unravelling, with the end of growth, the end of full employment and the end of jobs for life.The country's very success has left its people uniquely ill-equipped to deal with recession. "Japan is at a turning point," said Mr Nakajima. "You can't just rely on nice relationships any more. All we can do is put up with this hardship and wait for spring to come."