The City That Fell To Earth

Walking the back streets to my former house in Tomigaya 2-chome, I notice that our old neighborhood public bath has been demolished for an office building. Then I stop suddenly. The steep concrete stairway leading to our cul-de-sac, once the final segment of my commute home, is gone. In its place is a new condominium. I feel violated, as if an interstate has cut through the family farm.

It has been six years since I moved to Detroit from Tokyo. Japan had been my home for 10 years, off and on, and this is my first trip back. When I left in 1987, Japan's so-called bubble economy was still expanding, inflated by soaring real estate prices and cheap money.

SMOOTH SURFACE. Now, though, the bubble has burst. As I wander through the city, visiting old haunts and friends, I'm curious to see how things have changed. On the surface, much is the same. The subway cars are still chockablock with ads for weekly magazines, wedding halls, whiskeys, and tonics. The Yomiuri Giants are still the favorite among baseball fans--and still losing. And I know I'm in Japan when I read "Happy Family Life" on a street-side vending machine selling "Passion Rose" and "Passion Mint Jelly" brand condoms. (My all-time favorite name: "Ronny Wrinkle.")

What's different? One obvious change is that there are at least triple the number of foreign cars on the road than in 1987--BMWs, Mercedes, Maseratis, VWs, even a Corvette left over from the boom. And computers have finally come to Tokyo's cramped offices: I notice about one laptop for about every four desks. And there are lots more foreigners around, particularly Middle Easterners, many of whom came during the boom as illegal guest workers.

But I'm stopped short by a scene in the Ginza. It's not the nearly motionless Buddhist monk, occasionally ringing a bell as he holds an alms bowl in front of him. He has been a fixture at the Ginza 4-chome intersection, sort of Tokyo's Fifth Avenue, for as long as I can remember. Rather, it's a building four doors down. Here, in one of the choicest chunks of real estate in the world, stands a just-finished building--completely empty.

In 1987, buildings were fully booked before they were half-finished. Landlords demanded, and got, exorbitant rents. Now, a friend tells me he's ready to walk away from his lease to get a cheaper one. He tells of an apartment where the asking rent was 1.2 million yen ($10,700) a month. Offered 800,000 yen ($7,145), the landlord jumped.

PINK SLIPS. Suddenly, I notice empty buildings everywhere. It's nothing like Detroit, where boarded-up storefronts and shells of lovely old homes litter the city. Nonetheless, the change in land-scarce Tokyo is enormous. I head for Aoyama, where my wife, Kathryn, and I lived as newlyweds. It was a trendy area, home to Japan's hot young fashion designers in the mid-'80s. (We felt out of our league, and for various reasons, we eventually moved.) As I pass a real estate brokerage. I count 153 ads in the window for condos, offices, or entire buildings. Elizabeth Suzuki, a former neighbor, says: "Just walking the dog, I see about 15 buildings that are half-full or less." There are at least five plots, she adds, where the old building has been razed, but nothing is going up.

After a few days of catching up with old friends, it's clear that almost all of them know someone who has lost a job because of the recession. Professor Richard Young, a close friend who teaches at Meiji Gakuin University, says graduating seniors are no longer certain to land a position, and more are opting for graduate school. Yet manufacturers face a labor shortage because fewer young Japanese want to work in factories. So, beleaguered carmakers Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have headed to the provinces in search of workers.

It's this paradox that takes me south, to Kyushu, where I join other journalists for a tour of Toyota's new plant. The big excitement, it turns out, is the sight of two women workers. An equal-employment law was passed just before I left, but it has done little to change tradition. So the women are a novelty. Photographers jostle for a shot, and during the question-and-answer session, women in the plant is a big topic.

On the flight back to Tokyo, I note a change for the better: We're served hot tea and snacks. Before domestic airline deregulation, "in-flight service" amounted to a single peppermint candy tossed hastily onto your tray. As I sip my tea, I'm engrossed by an in-flight video, What's the Longest Line?, about stores across the country that Japanese line up for. Most of the lines are filled with bargain-hunters. Businessmen queue up for a cheapo, three-minute haircut at Tokyo's Shimbashi station, and housewives wait for cheap salmon at a high-volume, low-overhead shop. The woman at the front of the line for a sale at the stylish Harajuku Laforet boutique says she got there at 4:12 a.m. for the 7 a.m. opening. A woman behind her says she's buying clothes for 120 friends--and pulls out a list to prove it.

The Japanese enjoy a bargain as much as anybody, but they didn't brag about it before the bubble burst. Indeed, most stores stressed status, not price. No longer. In the Shibuya shopping-and-entertainment district, the sign outside Textile World Toa blares, in English: "Everyday Low Price." When I visit my friend Shin Tanaka in suburban Tsunabashi, he takes me to see the Daikuma Dynamic Discount Store. Although no Warehouse Club, this smallish, two-story retailer along the lines of a Wal-Mart Store does a feverish business, as attested to by its packed, three-story parking lot. Impressed by the prices, I buy two futon covers and some gifts for my four-year-old son, Will.

GUCCI GULCH. Some bargains are a sign of disaster. I'm told of a retailer who bought Gucci bags at 10,000 yen apiece planning to sell them for double that. But the store's location wasn't right. Now, he's selling them for 4,000 to 7,000 yen--anything to bring in some cash.

This, I decide, is the real legacy of the bubble. When things were going great, anybody could succeed, no matter how good or poor their plans. Today, success is by no means certain--for retailers, college grads, or carmakers. Japan's economy isn't collapsing, but the days of sake and honey are over.

The implications of the burst bubble and its lost opportunities are spelled out inadvertently in a wistful sign outside a real estate development office near Shimbashi. Between pictures of the lush greens of a planned country club and membership-application solicitations, a sign in English misspells "We're" as "Were." It reads: "Super Projects Were Beginning for 21st Century."

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