When the glass pot on Yuko Ohira's electric coffee maker cracked
during dishwashing the other day, she found an old steel pan to take
Until just a few months ago she would have immediately ordered
the 5,500-yen (US$45) replacement pot without much thought.
But with the New Year's economic indicators threatening to make
Japan's sagging economy even worse, getting used to an ugly
makeshift coffeepot is one of the small lifestyle changes that are
becoming more common for this middle-class household of nine.
Newsstands are filled with magazines predicting massive layoffs
and corporate failures this year. Even the greetings in New Year's
cards contained prayers for the strength to persevere instead of the
customary optimism about the future.
The sputtering end to years of Japanese expansion and the
government's inability to turn things around is hitting Japanese
families such as the Ohiras, core supporters of Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi and his plans to restructure the country's
Mr. Koizumi's eight-month-old government promises to curtail the
bureaucracy, strengthen Japan's social safety net, and foster new
industry. But because many bureaucrats and rival politicians are
against Koizumi's plans, a dip in his 70-percent-plus approval
rating could be fatal.
Indeed, money is tighter than ever at the Ohira house because the
family-run contracting business, which thrived for decades here near
the center of Japan's ancient capital, is drying up. The mainstay
business of building and remodeling homes is faltering, so they have
started importing building materials and are paring expenses from
their three-person staff.
Still, the Ohiras say the cost of educating three kids and caring
for two grandparents in their 80s is rising as the government tries
to trim its own budget.
"Things have never been so tough,'' says Hiroshi Ohira, sitting
in the kitchen of the family home, a structure dating back a
century, one that's seen Japan's wartime destruction and decades of
To cope with the slow economy, the family shelved plans to expand
their business and refurbish the home where Mr. Ohira and his two
brothers grew up. Instead, they've boarded up half the house to cut
heating and maintenance expenses. The TV remote is bandaged with
masking tape instead of being replaced.
The cutbacks might not seem like much during a global recession
and at a time when images of Afghan refugees appear on most Japanese
TV news shows.
While laborers, dropouts, and others on the fringes of Japanese
society have been squeezed for years, the sacrifices of the Ohiras
show the country's doldrums are hitting working families too.
"Things are getting bad for the majority of people for the first
time," said Shigenori Okazaki, an analyst at UBS Warburg, a
financial services firm. …