- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

TOKYO Waiting for customers patiently in an icy-cold wind, shoeshine man Mitsuhiro Kinokuniya gripes about how his business is slower than ever as Japan's stalled economy sputters along.

"This is terrible. How can I survive?" asked the frail-looking 69-year-old sitting near a Ginza street lined with expensive restaurants, bars and clubs, where corporate bigwigs used to flock to select from pricey champagne, caviar and good-looking hostesses.

Shining shoes in the gilt-edge district of Tokyo that used to symbolize Japan's wealth, Mr. Kinokuniya has witnessed the country's economic rise and fall since the late 1980s. As a matter of course, those ups and downs also affected him.

Like many in this country, Mr. Kinokuniya never imagined this protracted economic slump. During the late 1980s, when Japan was proudly flexing its economic muscles, his business was booming. A shoeshine man who charges 500 yen (then about $5, now worth nearer to $4) for shining a pair of shoes, he used to get three or four customers a day who brought 10 pairs at a time for him to polish.

"Back then, I had no time to take a break. I had to keep on working," he recalls.

But he lost a lot of his regular clientele soon after the Japanese economy started heading south in the early 1990s. Still, he was able to make ends meet, he said.

"Until four or five years ago, my business was not as bad as it is now. It's getting worse every year," he said. "I often have a pretty bad day, with only four or five customers."

Mr. Kinokuniya is one of a growing number of people here who face an increasingly grave economic situation.

Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has stressed his "no pain, no gain" view since taking office last April, more and more people actually see it as "much pain, no gain," analysts say.

"Since Mr. Koizumi took office, he has asked people to accept pain over and over again, but now more people have started responding: 'How long do we have to do that?'" said Atsuko Kusanagi, a Tokyo-based journalist. "What have people gained? All they got is pain."

Since the start of Mr. Koizumi's government, Japan has seen unemployment rates rise from 4.8 percent in April to 5.6 percent in December, and the stock market fall to about a quarter of its 1989 peak. The number of bankruptcies in 2001 increased to 19,441, the second-largest annual number since World War II, according to Teikoku Databank.

As more jobs disappear and wages are cut, a growing number of people have become more skeptical about the prime minister's reforms, and some even fear a financial collapse.

"At first, I had high expectation for Mr. Koizumi, but I no longer support him," said Toshihiko, who asked that his family name not be used. "It has taken just too long [to carry out promised reforms], and the economic situation has become more serious."

Minoru Morita, a political analyst who describes Mr. Koizumi as the worst prime minister in history, said more people have begun to notice "the big lie" that Mr. Koizumi and the Japanese media have created that "structural reform can turn the economy around."

In addition to the economic crisis, his firing of popular Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka on Jan. 29 pushed the public-approval rating for the Koizumi Cabinet from more than 70 percent to below 50 percent, opinion polls show.

Mr. Koizumi's move was seen as pushing troublesome problems under the rug, since Mrs. Tanaka was campaigning to clean up the hidebound Foreign Ministry, analysts say. Her firing was taken as a sign that Mr. Koizumi, who promised to change the LDP, caved in under mounting pressure from party elders.

For the prime minister, who doesn't have a strong power base in his own party, the plunge in popularity means he has lost his best weapon: public support. That could delay Mr. Koizumi's promised reforms, and makes it doubtful he will be able to pursue economic reforms.

The prime minister "has fooled Japanese voters with his reformist rhetoric, but his spell is finally broken," said Yoshi Tsurumi, professor of international business at the City University of New York's Baruch College.


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