The dark cloud over the Rising Sun


I WASN'T sure whether I'd be totally welcome at this little bar, especially if there was a crowd of customers there already. These "snack" places can be a bit cool to non-regulars, so before I took a couple of friends there I decided to call and see if it would be OK.

"Of course, come on over," the "mama" said on the phone. "We're waiting eagerly for you."

When we arrived, it was obvious why she had been so eager -- it was after 9 p.m., and we were the first customers of the evening. In fact, during our stay only one other party came in.

"How has business been?" I asked.

"Look around you," the owner replied. "It's just like this every night."

For some months in the States, we've been hearing about the bursting of Japan's "bubble economy" -- the fall in stock prices, the drop in sales of cars and other goods, the beginnings of actual layoffs in the giant firms once thought unstoppable. This night in Japan demonstrated how deeply the recession had reached into the fabric of society.

It wasn't the only evidence. A good friend who had been posted in Atlanta by one of the major trading companies invited me to join him and his family for dinner one night at his club. It was a nice place, with good food and "bunny girl" waitresses (yes, they do still have those in Japan) -- but it was half-empty.

bTC My friend didn't seem to notice. He was too busy telling me about how many people he had had to lay off at the subsidiary he was running, and fretting about the future. "Right now, Rick, I'm making plans for the liquidation of the whole company."

Another night, I enjoyed yakitori and karaoke with three people from a respected law firm. They had plenty of time to see me, they said, because they had almost no work. One, a paralegal, had joined the firm in April and had not yet had any cases to work on.

You can read about recession in the newspaper, but it's very different to see it in person, in the faces and the lives of people you know. It's not economic theory; it's real.

This hardly means that the sun has set on the Japanese miracle, in the words of a recent book title. But it does suggest something important for Americans, as we debate trade policy toward Japan and such things as "industrial policy" for ourselves.

The crashing fall of Japan's high-flying economy may mean that much of the fierce dispute about whether that country "plays by different rules" is irrelevant. It seems that economic forces do play by the same rules everywhere, and if your system doesn't follow them, your system brings you down.

It's clear that some of the ostensible strengths of the Japanese business system turned out to be part of the problem. "Lifetime employment," for instance, left most firms top-heavy and unable to cope with sudden change. An executive at an electronics firm told me the company's basic structure would have to be totally overhauled.

Japan will recover from this recession and will be a tough competitor for a long time to come. But we may never need to fear it as superhuman and invincible again.

Richard Matthews writes for the Atlanta Journal.

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