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Sunday, July 6, 2003

MEDIA MIX

The rich visit the poor to teach us a lesson


The fate of the Japanese economy may still be up in the air, but one thing is certain: We are living in an age of reduced expectations. Regardless of what happens to the GDP and unemployment rates, the public does not believe that things can only get better.

Since World War II, the Japanese have believed that they comprise a uniform middle class, with all the entitlements a middle class should enjoy, including the idea that their children's lives would be more affluent. During the past decade, however, they've seen lifetime employment go out the window and the pension system undermined. As a result, class differences that were always there but easy to ignore have become more pronounced.

Takuro Morinaga, a researcher for UFJ bank and one of the pundits on TV Asahi's nightly news show, "News Station," discusses these changes in his best-selling book, "The Economics of Surviving the 3 Million yen Salary Era." He roughly divides people into those who earn tens of millions of yen a year, those who earn between 3 yen and 4 million yen, and those who earn 1 million yen or less.

The average household income in Japan is about 6 million yen a year. As employers restructure and merit becomes the yardstick for raises and promotions, pay will continue to contract for a good portion of the workforce, and it seems likely that in the not-too-distant future many company employees will have to make do with less than 4 million yen, which, according to Morinaga, is the average middle-class income in the developed world.

At present, 99 percent of Japanese households who survive at that level have color TVs and refrigerators, 78 percent have air conditioners, and 73 percent have automobiles, so it's obvious that people can get by on that amount of money. Rather than bemoan his fate, Morinaga says the middle-class salaryman should embrace it.

He points to Europe as a better example than the United States. In the States, where "opportunity" is the magic bullet for all economic problems, the middle class is now forced to work punishingly long hours just to stay in the game. In continental Europe, where class has always been a fact of life, the middle class has no ambition to rise above its station and has worked for a level of comfort that is best characterized by a lot of guaranteed leisure.

Morinaga thinks that, as employment becomes a buyer's game, people will adjust to smaller salaries by working less and thus gaining greater spiritual affluence in the form of free time. Presumably, this will happen gradually, as a new generation enters the workforce, but such a change will still require a change in attitude. The middle class will, in effect, have to start thinking like the working poor. Last week, in fact, during a packed lecture at Dokkyo University, he held up as a shining example people who make less than 1 million yen a year, but do what they want to do.

Since Morinaga hinted that he himself rakes in a good deal more than that, it seems presumptuous of him to speak for the working poor. One can get a clearer picture of their situation on "Zenigata Kintaro" (TV Asahi; Thursday, 11:15 p.m.), a variety program that each week pits four binbo-san (poor people) against one another for a cash prize of 200,000 yen. The contestants are profiled by professional comedians, who visit their miserable little hovels and find out how they can possibly survive on next to nothing. A panel of three judges then decides which of the four deserves the money the most.

Many of the contestants live as paupers in order to, as Morinaga would put it, "pursue their dreams," which in most cases has something to do with show business. But while their various situations are played for laughs, the reality of their impoverishment is at times shocking. Some make do without running water or electricity, others live in spaces that barely give them enough room to sit down, and almost everyone survives on diets that wouldn't nourish a gnat. "I would never allow my child to live like that," one of the judges, an actress who specializes in mother roles, said a few weeks ago.

Most of the contestants are young people working at part-time jobs who will either move on to a better lifestyle once they achieve their goals or give up their dreams and get full-time jobs. Or maybe they'll do neither, especially if the economy never picks up again, which is what Morinaga is saying.

Free time for poor people is not necessarily a blessing. The reality of making ends meet gets in the way, and "Zenigata" is clear about how difficult it is to live at the bottom of the food chain. Each contestant comes with his or her own set of living expenses. Communications charges take a huge bite out of their resources because they use cellular phones, which are easy and cheap to register, but expensive to use. The housing that's available to them is often overpriced -- many pay rents equivalent to half their wages -- and is in a terrible condition.

In its own warped way, "Zenigata" debunks the romantic image that many people have about the working poor -- that they are somehow more carefree. Morinaga similarly thinks that the recession will have an astringent effect on the nation's materialistic outlook, showing everyone how they can live their lives more fully on considerably less.

Morinaga's book is meant to be illustrative, not prescriptive, but in any case the author does not adhere to the lifestyle he espouses. During his lecture he said that he himself has not had a day off for the past two years, what with all the TV appearances and lectures he's offered, and who can blame him? Reduced expectations are easier to cope with when you've got money socked away.



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