Japanese Consumers Embrace Cult of Frugality : Trade: The trend made "The Notion of Honest Poverty" a best-seller but may make the nation's huge surplus harder to cut.

From Associated Press

If you thought all Japanese department stores were hushed cathedrals of commerce, with bowing salesclerks proffering exquisite but breathtakingly expensive merchandise, check out this scene:

"I saw that first!" one middle-aged woman snapped at another as the two squared off in front of a rack of cut-rate men's shirts. Harried clerks, rushing to replace depleted stocks, even did the unthinkable--jostled customers and hurried off without a word of apology.

The combat-shopping mode that prevails at discount emporiums like Takeya, in northeast Tokyo, is among the signals of a possible sea change in spending habits here.

The renewed thriftiness is dimming hopes that consumer spending will help Japan shake off the effects of its economic slump--and that domestic demand will help trim the country's huge trade surpluses.

"I don't see Japanese consumers being the sort of generators of growth that some have thought," said Margee M. Ensign, a professor at American University. "I think that's a false hope on the part of policy-makers."

In the go-go 1980s, Japanese consumers snapped up everything from high-priced designer goods to high-tech electronic playthings. Expense was no deterrent; it often was a selling point.

But if big spending was a religion then, a cult of frugality could be taking hold now.

Housewives write letters to the editor telling of the satisfaction to be found in a scaled-down, simpler life. A book called "The Notion of Honest Poverty" became a surprise best-seller.

The once-common practice of throwing out nearly new appliances has fallen off. Cut-rate travel agencies are carving out more of a market niche. People take pride in being "kenyakuka"--tightwads.

Some are noting the trend with approval, saying it marks a return to values abandoned during the "bubble" years of the 1980s.

A recent survey by a Tokyo advertising agency suggested that many Japanese now believe spending binges brought little real satisfaction. It said consumers have become less likely to spend money to indulge individual pursuits and more inclined to try to please family and friends.

With companies cutting back on wage raises and bonuses, many consumers have practical reasons to cut back.

Underscoring the penny-pinching mood, a predicted "wedding boom" jump in consumer spending to mark the wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito never happened.

Times are tough for retailers who had reaped the benefits of the national shopping spree: Department store earnings remain sluggish despite the nascent recovery.

Merchants in Tokyo's electronics district of Akihabara, where consumers once flocked to buy the latest gadgetry, are getting hammered by cut-rate competition and diminished demand.

Much of the consumer-spending boom of the 1980s was fueled with easy credit. Having run up huge credit card bills, many shoppers are now shunning that option.

"I don't use my credit cards much any more," said shopper Hanako Maeda. "It was horrible to get big bills for things I hardly remembered buying. It's more satisfying to save money and buy something with it."

While some still indulge in conspicuous consumption, many others are resorting to the tactics familiar to families on tight budgets. Instead of expensive wooden furniture, they opt for shelves, tables and chairs assembled from kits at a third of the price.

"It's becoming very popular," said Naoyuki Matsumoto of Seibu Loft, a Tokyo department store that carries ready-to-assemble furniture. "People like the idea they can build something. Also, it's cheap."

Ironically, the belt-tightening comes at a time when the Japanese yen is all-powerful, surging in value against other currencies. Theoretically, that means foreign goods should be cheaper to buy here.

But even with scattered discounting in response to the high yen, the middlemen who dominate Japan's complex distribution system keep prices much higher than elsewhere.

Increasingly, Japanese are conscious of that inequity.

"I like to look, but I'm not buying anything," said Emi Kawada, browsing in a boutique in Tokyo's Ginza district. "If I see something I want, maybe I'll wait until I'm on vacation overseas to buy something like it."

Some have suggested the impulse toward thrift could mark a return to deeply rooted Japanese values. The best-selling book by essayist Koji Nakano points to historical figures like the Zen recluse Ryokan and argues that modern-day Japanese should reconsider their materialistic ways.

Others say attitudes have not fundamentally changed.

"I think the disinclination to spend now is not really a return to traditional frugality. It's waking up with a hangover and swearing off," said Theodore Bestor of Columbia University's East Asian Institute.

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