Out of Japan: The night-life indicator coos soothing news

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Akiko would like everyone to know that she is well, her bar is still open for business and things are looking up. In fact she is considering a holiday in South-East Asia with her 'girls'.

Akiko featured in this column in December, when I visited her bar with a Japanese business friend one night after dinner. She is the mama-san of a hostess bar in Tokyo's smart Ginza district, and, more than any GNP statistical forecasts or stock market indices, Akiko has her finger on the real pulse of Japanese business.

When things are going well, businessmen come in and spend freely on their company expense accounts, drinking endless whiskies and water and laughing at the risque jokes of the hostesses. When things are going badly the businessmen come less often, and then they complain to her about the recession as she coos words of sympathy.

Last December Japan was in the depths of recessionary gloom. Profits were down, the stock market was down, Akiko's business was down. She was having trouble with the rent and was not looking forward to the New Year.

Official economic indicators are still down, and economists do not expect any real improvement until 1994. But some businesses are starting to sense that the worst might be over - and Akiko is getting her customers back. The 'Akiko lead indicator' is back in the black.

But all is not as it was before. One evening last week there were two men in her bar, a Mr Suzuki from a steel company and a Mr Kobayashi from an electrical engineering firm. Their stories show how Japanese business is adapting to new circumstances, just as it has when it faced past economic difficulties.

Mr Kobayashi was rather quiet. He had worked for his firm for 28 years, rising to a senior managerial position. He has a house in Tokyo, is married with two children and is nearing 50. The previous week his boss announced his transfer to Peking to set up a branch office. He had a month to prepare for the move.

Mr Kobayashi speaks no Chinese and has never visited China. He is happy in Tokyo where his children attend school. If he were 20 years younger he would have jumped at the job offer. But, at his age, it was the last thing he had expected or wanted. Could he not politely turn down the offer? 'Then I would have to leave the company,' he said gravely. It was an offer he could not refuse.

Officially Japanese companies do not lay off staff who have given their all for the company in exchange for an unwritten guarantee of a job for life. But in the economic downturn there are many stories like Mr Kobayashi's: senior employees transferred to difficult or unattractive positions in the knowledge that a portion of them will choose early retirement instead.

Mr Suzuki was in a more upbeat mood. He had just returned from a promotional trip to the north of Japan. He was pushing his company's latest product: summer skiing. Wait a minute - skiing from a steel company?

With a big grin, Mr Suzuki produced his prospectus, for a huge artificial ski slope his company is building. 'Steel, you see,' he said, pointing at the struts supporting the structure. The big steel companies in Japan have been uncompetitive in the core business of making steel for some time. But, rather than lay off tens of thousands of workers, the industry is diversifying into a bizarre range of new businesses.

At this point Akiko announced she wanted to go skiing with Mr Suzuki, which produced a squeal of protest from Mr Kobayashi. But Akiko would have none of it. 'Jealousy is a silly thing,' she announced. She then told a story which made Mr Suzuki, already flushed from drinking, blush even more.

Apparently one night, after much revelry, she and the two girls in the bar had taken off their clothes - or some of their clothes - and posed for a picture with Mr Suzuki. Mr Suzuki's wife had come across the picture. 'And was she jealous?' asked Akiko with a wicked laugh.

The ups and downs of the economy were forgotten now, as the whisky flowed and the conversation became more ribald. Mr Suzuki took off his jacket, shaped his necktie into a bow and pretended to be a waiter. Mr Kobayashi began speculating on how often he could fly down to Hong Kong from Peking for holidays. And, with Akiko's help, corporate Japan was ready to fight another day.

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