Going Belly Up In Japan

Bankruptcies are soaring while consumers binge on borrowing

Somewhere on the southern Japanese peninsula of Shizuoka, a 36-year-old former restaurateur and his family live in hiding. He's not running from the law, but from the severe social stigma attached to bankruptcy in Japan. Last year, his Yokohama eatery, financed by $160,000 in loans, went bust. So he fled south. "I have my pride," he explains over a mobile phone. "People started gossiping about what had happened, and Japanese gossip is frightening." He will reveal no more than the fact that he now works as a security guard. Such stories illustrate the rise of a new class in Japan of what one might call debt-heads. As bizarre as it seems, the country that boasts one of the highest savings rates in the world is also home to a growing number of individual bankruptcies (chart). Last year, some 56,494 individuals filed for bankruptcy, up 30% over the year before. And Japan's Ministry of Finance (MOF) is bracing for a similar jump this year. The figures reflect the new challenges of making ends meet in post-bubble Japan, as well as the excesses of a consumer lending industry that makes borrowing easier than ever. The plight of so many bankrupts also points to a consumer economy that is probably still too fragile to support a strong recovery.

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