Sunday, June 1, 2003

Japanese economy stuck in decade-long doldrums

By Koji Sasahara
The Associated Press

TOKYO - From the jobless scavenging through garbage to office workers lining up at fast-food restaurants, the Japanese are suffering through an economic slump that has persisted for a decade.

"It's gone beyond just worries," said Mineko Sato, 64, who runs a small store. "The only thing you've got to do is defend yourself - scrimp and save in every way."

Sato and many other Japanese are tired, perhaps ready to give up. Political leaders acknowledge that prospects for a quick turnaround are poor.

Long gone are the heyday growth years for Japan Inc. that spanned decades of modernization. Manufacturing is fleeing to China, where labor is cheaper.

People are afraid to spend, too worried about life after retirement - or worse still, life after "risutora," the Japanese for "restructuring" and the euphemism here for layoffs.

The neon-glittering streets of Tokyo are packed with rows of silent cabs, waiting and waiting, some say for several hours, for customers who never come.

In the "bubble" years that lasted until the late 1980s, workers could count on expense accounts to pay for cab fares. The drivers had it easy.

Japan's unemployment rate is now at a near-record high 5.4 percent. Joblessness among the young is peaking at its highest levels in half a century.

The main index for the Tokyo stock market has slid lately to 20-year lows. Some smaller companies are collapsing as banks tighten lending, weighed down by massive bad debts.

Homelessness is emerging as a social blight in a nation that long prided itself on clean and orderly appearances.

Some swaggering in drunken stupor, the homeless build shelters out of plastic and collect empty soda cans to eke out a livelihood from recycling fees.

The number of people sleeping outdoors in cardboard boxes, tents and under bridges totals nearly 25,300 nationwide, up nearly 60 percent from four years ago, according to government data. Japan does not count the thousands of people in shelters and flophouses in such data.

"There is a danger that the so-called lost decade of the 1990s could continue for another decade," said Masaaki Mizuno, strategist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in Tokyo.

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