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Bubble bursts for Americans, too Employment: With Asia's economy faltering, the cushy jobs in Japan that used to pay Americans big money have all but disappeared.


TOKYO -- Christmas season is enough to put the Rev. Shoichi Ino in a pretty grinchy mood. He is desperate for foreign pastors to dispatch to all the Tokyo hotels who demand them to lend an authentic touch to their Christian wedding and Christmas concert business.

And not only do they want them white, male and handsome, they expect them to be credentialed.

Ino knows that 80 percent of the members of the Japan Evangelical Missionaries Association disdain the hypocrisy of performing Christian services for non-Christians, and the 20 percent that don't already have more business than they can handle. So he ran an ad in the Japan Times that cast a wider net: "missionaries, pastors and Christian college graduates."

A small flood of eager candidates responded, proffering ministry degrees and professing abiding faith in the Lord.

"I thought some of them would be good, until I found out how much Americans lie," Ino says with disgust, flourishing a stack of computer-generated certificates like the one downloaded from the Progressive Universal Church, which sells degrees over the Internet in anything from ministry to aromatherapy for $19.95.

The wedding service is purely ceremonial in Japan, so there is no legal requirement that it be performed by an ordained minister. But ever since an article in the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi this year that exposed the majority of chaplains as English teacher-poseurs, there has been pressure on businesses such as Ino's Total Bridal Network to come up with foreigners closer to the real thing.

But that demand caused its own problems.

"We give them a prepared script, but I always like to give them three minutes to express their own message of Christian feeling," Ino explains. "Well, one pastor wouldn't stop while he went on and on with his lecture on Christ. Weddings are scheduled for 20 minutes, so they were getting backed up."

It also left little time for the choir's requisite "Amazing Grace," "Ave Maria" and "Tennessee Waltz."

"And then," Ino recalls of another wedding, "there was fundamentalist whose face turned angry and red and he started yelling at the guests that they were all going straight to hell."

He has decided that a Christian heart will be good enough, so he will interview a woman named Christine Bloom whose letter didn't try to fool him but said simply that she was strong in her own faith. She's an English teacher.

Ministering a wedding typically pays 15,000 yen (about $130). Scheduled back to back, it's nice work for Americans in Japan who can get it.

Christian weddings are one of the few growth industries in Japan these days. Hiring the deluxe Christian wedding package of six Americans -- a pastor, a three-member choir, an organist and a trumpeter -- is much cheaper than renting the bride's kimono needed for a Shinto service.

American college graduates who streamed to Japan to work off their student loans or amass a nest egg to buy a house back home, and global backpackers who counted on making enough to finance a year on the road in Asia, have watched their market value plummet along with the value of most everything else in this economy.

They are under a double whammy -- the overall decline in consumer demand, and a shift in the exchange rate that has eaten 36 percent of the dollar value of their yen earnings since 1996.

Teaching English has long been the typical entree for Americans seeking a toehold in the Japanese economy. To hear the old-timers talk, they simply landed at the airport with a guidebook. Since the frothy days of "internationalization," however, the galaxy of English conversation schools has imploded. Now, even the worst ones expect job candidates to have the right visa, the right accent, even teaching experience.

New arrivals are the hardest hit by the wage deflation.

"There's a two-tier pay system for us here now," says Heidi Bean, a former Peace Corps volunteer. "There's a difference of 1,500 yen an hour at our school, depending on whether you were hired before or after the Bubble burst." The Bubble is what Japanese call the go-go speculative economy of the 1980s and early '90s.

Beverly Dausen says she wouldn't have considered giving private English conversation classes for less than $80 an hour when she arrived.

Seven years later, with superior Japanese language ability, she makes half that as a translator for Japan's banks. Since new hires for the same job are offered half of that, she guards her job as tenaciously as one would a rent-control apartment in New York.

There were 55,312 North Americans registered in Japan at the end of 1997, an 8.3 percent increase since 1993. This masks a decline in American teachers, artists, missionaries, journalists, lawyers, accountants and doctors.

Statistics provided by the Ministry of Labor suggest that the overall increase is due to a surge in American employees of U.S. companies, the cosseted "ex-pats" whose company-subsidized lifestyles only make the lot of locally hired Americans seem more miserable by contrast. With the depressed Tokyo real-estate market, even middle-management types move into apartments larger than their split-levels back home.

As a further injustice, the hoi polloi Americans have to listen to earlier arrivals like Diane Wiltshire reminisce about the days when foreigners were chased by Japanese waving fistfuls of yen: "A man I met at a coffee shop asked me if he could use my name on some towels. He gave 1 million yen and I never heard from him again until I came across some kelly green towels and there it was: 'Southern Diane.'

"My sister came to visit," she continues, "and within weeks had arranged lunch with three doctors who each paid 10,000 yen to listen to her thick Southern accent with her mouth full."

In Bubble terms, that's $12,000 for the name and $353 for the lunch.

Japan once provided a bonanza for foreign models, especially those who came up a little short of the standards for New York or Paris.

"In the Bubble years, we got 1 million yen to do a fashion show," says Zita Ohe, a former Fendi model. "Now, the ad agencies that are still using foreigners are turning to the Army bases for 14-year-olds."

That is, if they're not using one of the 9,680 English teachers, investment bankers trailing spouses and their children who have registered with the agencies that refer foreigners for commercial work.

When the clients say they want "fresh," says Ohe, "that means cheap. Unattractive is OK."

There is still work for Americans who are less inhibited than most Japanese about, say, dancing like a chicken on the busiest street corner in Tokyo.

Or squeezing into a fish tail and swimming in a tank while waving to businessmen having dinner.

And there are still ads for foreigners to play Santa Claus at department stores and business districts -- like the one with the requirement that candidates first pay for and complete a course of four lessons in proper Santa Claus behavior for 12,000 yen ($100).

It's all enough to make some Americans sympathetic to the current parsimony of the Japanese.

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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