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Sunday, July 9, 2006

MEDIA MIX

There's a price to pay for flaunting wealth in Japan


For its annual World Wealth Report, finance firm Merrill Lynch circles the globe and counts the number of millionaires. Though a million dollars -- 114 million yen, as defined by the survey -- ain't what it used to be, it's still a distant dream for the vast majority.

According to the report, about 16 percent of the world's millionaires live in Japan, which has always thought of itself as a uniformly middle class society. In the past several years, however, the Japanese media has closely scrutinized the expanding chasm between the country's rich and poor. This chasm has always existed to some extent, but the rich have traditionally kept a low profile here.

For that reason, ML's statistics showing that Japan has more per capita millionaires than the United States may surprise people. America might not be the birthplace of conspicuous consumption, but its citizens have definitely raised it to an art form. What would a parvenu gangsta rapper be without his Cristal champagne and Lexus? What would Donald Trump be without his history of trophy wives?

The main difference between the visibly rich in America and their Japanese counterparts is that the former tend to be hard realists while the latter still have an air of innocence about them. The downfall of stock-wealthy entrepreneurs like Takafumi Horie and Yoshiaki Murakami is attributed to their wanting too much too fast. They seemed like gods when they were raking it in, but after getting busted they were more like kids who didn't understand the rules of the game they were playing.

Their main mistake was allowing the media to get too close. Rather than keep their skyrocketing wealth under wraps, they showed it off, because that was the nature of their business. The backlash was severe; or, at least, extreme considering their trespasses, which many experts feel weren't really that unusual.

A more understandable backlash was the one visited on Bank of Japan Gov. Toshihiko Fukui. Here was a rich guy who played by the old rules, meaning he didn't flaunt his wealth. Though it is now estimated that he and his wife are worth around 350 million yen, prior to the revelation that he made a bundle through Murakami's discredited fund he was thought of as just another hardworking bureaucrat.

Fukui has pleaded ignorance ("I was a complete amateur") about the mechanisms of the fund that gave him a 140 percent return on his 10-million yen investment, which is pretty cute coming from the man who oversees Japan's money supply. The innocence aspect has been compounded not only by Fukui's unassuming demeanor and puppy dog appearance, but by others' testimony to his alleged disinterest in money.

Media reports play up the fact that he lives "modestly" in Gotenyama, which at one time was considered an exclusive upscale area of Tokyo but not any more. In other words, he doesn't live in Roppongi Hills. Some journalists allege that he was "used" by Murakami, since Fukui's name would attract more investors to the fund. Most people would be delighted to be used in such a way.

One could also say that the kidnapping on June 26 of Kanako Ikeda, the 21-year-old daughter of a famous cosmetic surgeon, was a backlash of sorts. Kanako was snatched right off the streets of Shibuya in broad daylight by men who said they got the idea from seeing Kanako and her mother, Yuko, on television flaunting their wealth.

Based on reports of their backgrounds and given the speed with which the police solved the case, the three kidnappers were obviously a bunch of bumbling amateurs. They were certainly desperate, but if you're going the abduction-ransom route you couldn't pick a more obvious target than Kanako Ikeda, who practically walked around with a sign saying "Kidnap Me."

Since 2004, Yuko and Kanako have appeared on 16 television shows, most of which were about wealthy people and their things. In May 2005, for instance, a reporter for NTV's "Super Money Research Center" was given a grand tour of their Shibuya house, for which Yuko admitted on the air to paying 320 million yen in cash. Last August, TV Tokyo's "Solomon's Palace" accompanied Yuko and Kanako to a Rolls Royce dealership where they plunked down 15 million yen on the spot for a new set of wheels.

Yuko told Shukan Post in February that she makes about "a million yen an hour" at her clinic, which mostly does breast-enlargement operations. There seems little doubt that Yuko's numerous TV appearances are promotional in nature, but it's also clear that she enjoys showing off her wealth and feels proud of her accomplishment.

The gist of this accomplishment is that she put herself through medical school following a divorce. However, this bootstrap biographical detail does little to dull the shiny lacquer of privilege that coats her life.

Yuko was born to a well-to-do family and married a very rich man. She chose to study cosmetic surgery, in particular nonreconstructive boob jobs, because it is a very lucrative service and you don't have to deal with any depressing sick people (unless you yourself make them sick). Yuko's own kabuki-like visage, even if it isn't the result of surgical sculpting, is a clear indication of how far she exists from the kind of reality the rest of us live in.

So when reporters confronted Yuko after the dramatic rescue and asked for her opinion on why the kidnappers targeted Kanako she could answer with a straight face that she had no idea. It's possible she was still in a state of shock and not able to gather her thoughts, but it should be noted that during the course of the 14 calls the kidnappers made to her, she somehow got them to reduce the ransom demand from 300 million yen to 30 million yen. The rich really are different.



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