Japanese drop designer labels for bargain buys

TOKYO - What are Japanese consumers spending their hard-earned yen on in these days of recession? All-you-can-eat restaurants, cheap suits made in North Korea, 'mug noodles', the Japanese-language version of Microsoft's Windows software and a dessert made of fermented coconuts, according to the consumers' magazine, Nikkei Trendy, writes Terry McCarthy.

In the boom years of the late Eighties, Japanese were buying specially blended cups of coffee for pounds 20, Italian designer suits for pounds 2,000 and Impressionist paintings for pounds 20m and more. Conspicuous consumption was an understatement for the materialist frenzy of the 'bubble years'. But, with the economy now likely to register negative growth this year, the stock exchange languishing and the prospects of hitherto unknown levels of unemployment looming, consumers have tightened their belts with a cyclonic intake of breath.

According to Nikkei Trendy's survey of the '30 Hit Products' for 1993, consumers were interested either in cheap products or activities that made them forget about buying altogether. Top of the magazine's ranking was J-League, the country's first professional football league, which started this year. Spectators flocked to the games, particularly dating couples: two tickets and two hamburgers was still much cheaper than a Tokyo restaurant meal.

Salarymen began buying their clothes in discount stores, which were importing suits made for rock-bottom prices in Communist North Korea. Grocery shoppers cast aside their brand-name prejudices and started accepting a new line of generic goods in the Daiei supermarket chain. Diners crowded restaurants offering as much sushi, steak or Chinese food as they could eat for a set price.

For those preferring to eat in, the two big hits were mug-sized portions of instant noodles - as opposed to the larger bowl-sized versions - and nata de coco, a dessert made out of fermented coconuts from the Philippines. It displaces the more upmarket dessert fetish for Italian tiramisu.

The film Jurassic Park, the new Windows software and discos where girls with no underwear dance in skimpy dresses are popular distractions from the economic gloom. And if all else fails, Nikkei Trendy points out that Koji Nakano's book, The Concept of Honest Poverty, has already sold 700,000 copies this year.