Wednesday, April 8, 2009



The elegant Rainbow Room, like the vast city of New York over which it towers, has seen better days. On a recent visit I was pleased to discover the doormen were not at all strict about the dress code until I got inside and realized they were happy to have any customers at all.

The top floor of Rockefeller Center’s soaring main tower wasn’t completely empty, at least not the cozy bar with southern exposure where the dim lighting and tall windows offer unparalleled views of the Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building and Times Square in the foreground, with the towers of Wall Street and New York’s great suspension bridges twinkling like pearl necklaces in the distance.

But the only party ordering drinks with abandon the night I stopped in was a group of Japanese businessmen, high level cadre from Mitsubishi from the sound of it, and even with their perfunctory, big-hearted spending, one suspected the generosity was corporate, a way of rewarding themselves for laboring over serious business matters late into the night.

Nearly everywhere I went in New York in the days that followed, in the subway and streets, in half-empty cafes and idle shops, I heard talk of the economic downturn, lost fortunes, fear of depression, unemployment, social unrest. So prevalent is talk of financial matters of doom and gloom in America’s economic capital --TV news shows seem to talk of nothing else—except perhaps the latest Obama appearance, or that of his dashing wife.

Even street hustlers were in on the deal, a 34th street vendor of discounted goods of uncertain origin had a hand-painted sign on his sidewalk pushcart, urging customers to support the President’s “stimulus.” Everyone, except perhaps Mayor Bloomberg, who cut his teeth on Wall Street and has emerged from this mess as the city’s richest man, has had some belt-tightening to do.

Among the more puzzling editorials I read before returning to Japan were fear-mongering pieces that suggested America, if it didn’t deal with the downturn in just the right fashion might turn out like Japan. Like Japan? What’s wrong with glittering Japan, I wondered, where restaurants are packed, the cars are spotless and designer goods the domain of every housewife?

A few days later I found myself back in Tokyo, again in a tower looking down on a dazzling city. If you’ve seen Sophia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” you know exactly what kind of serenely isolated enclave hotel I am talking about. Why the hotel is so tall the lobby doesn’t even start until the 41st floor! A cup of good tea in the said lobby goes for around 2000 yen, twice the price of a glass of house wine in the Rainbow Room. The faux New York steak-house at the top of the Tokyo hotel, up yet another elevator, was to my great surprise packed with well-dressed customers. I didn’t see “Bobby” DeNiro, who the local Hollywood hack claims is a regular, but you’d have to be a movie star to afford the prices. No wonder those Japanese businessmen could afford to order several rounds of drinks. The real New York is still cheap for them.

So, where’s the doom and gloom in Tokyo? Well, it’s in scant evidence in the city’s fanciest hotels and swank downtown restaurants, but that’s to be expected in a society --once relatively egalitarian and in possession of a decent social safety net-- that has seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer during a decade-long economic downturn.

For doom and gloom of a political nature, however, one only need to look a few hundred meters north to another striking tower, the sterile, over-bearing and heavy-handed monstrosity called “To-Cho.” Tokyo’s vertical city hall is a monument to architectural arrogance, which suits well the nature of the long-reigning mayor, rightwing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro.

While the economic downturn is not immediately evident in the gleaming towers of Nishi-Shinjuku, there are clear signs of security downturn, or the paranoid perception of such, what with helicopters buzzing the air, government compounds ringed with car-bomb barriers, parcel inspection at the elevators and tabloids making war cries at North Korea. PAC-3 interceptor missiles were put on line in Ichigaya in the heart of Tokyo.

Disguised missile or failed satellite?

That Japan is in a political downturn is undeniable, the easy-to-kick North Korea was of much less interest and right-wing fanatics didn’t fare nearly as well when things were going swimmingly for the nation.

But for true, and tragic signs of Tokyo’s economic downturn, one has to ride the rails. If you take the popular Chuo Line, a major east-west artery known for its fast trains that speed through local stations without slowing down, you may find your train delayed due to “self-destruction” on the tracks. It’s Tokyo’s suicide line, and while some barriers have been installed and stern admonitions issued that victim families pay for the cost of cleanup, social policy has not sufficed to curb the tragic trend.

Japan’s national suicide rate has remained above 30,000 for as long as the downturn, suggesting there is some kind of social dysfunction at work with a link to the economy.

In a face-conscious society known for its busy-bee industriousness, where one’s job is often synonymous with one’s identity, firing workers is arguably more hurtful and more fraught with social risk than in America where people change jobs often and enjoy more social mobility. Layoffs of contract workers are bad enough, now even full-time Japanese workers, for whom the exacting but remunerative dedication to a sole employer was part of the status quo social compact, are in danger of being let go of.

The once tightly-woven social fabric that made Japan a relatively crime-free society for so long is coming unraveled. Several bloody killing sprees, most notably in the “Akihabara indiscriminate knife attack” --Japan mercifully remains a society of few guns —have been attributed to layoffs at blue chip firms and their subsidiaries. This parallels a sickening spate of indiscriminate gun violence in the US which has taken dozens of lives in the last month alone.

But putting aside for the moment the possible relevance of a rising crescendo of desperate acts, it is not immediately obvious walking the streets, let alone stalking the high-life bars of Tokyo, that people are poor or in deep trouble, though economic statistics suggest increased distress. For one, poverty is relative, Japanese may have less than before, but it is still the second wealthiest country in the world and has a level of “poverty” that most Third World nations can only dream of.

If anything, the recent downturn is more vivid in New York where the shock is recent and the reversal of fortunes more dramatic, epitomized in the strange case of Bernie Madoff, trusted con man to millionaires. Tokyo, which has been in the doldrums for the tenure of at least half a dozen prime ministers, wears its downturn a bit more flippantly, --why shouldn’t the rich be out on the town enjoying life?-- they still have more than anyone else and plenty of yen to spare.

If there is a danger in US catching the dreaded “Japan disease” that editorial pundits like to ruminate about, the reduction of aggregate wealth is less scary than the increase of stark inequality and sharp urban hierarchy.

Japan is broken, but not particularly poor. It’s in the doldrums alright, newspapers are shrinking like elsewhere, local editions of Esquire and Playboy have gone out of business, the popularity of the ruling party and inept prime minister are hitting rock bottom. But none of that compares to the way “little” people are getting hurt; first rendered poor, then invisible.

What makes Japan’s downturn tragic is the self-punishing shame of society’s losers who become afraid to show their face; lock-ins are rampant and people too proud to be poor have literally starved to death in their own apartments. Out of sight, out of mind.

Japan, Incorporated, hums along while it discards people like unwanted rung-out rags, things looking superficially much as they always did, while those who have no political voice or fancy connections wither away in anonymity and quiet despair.

On the US side, trillion dollar taxpayer-funded bailout plans are of the bankers, by the bankers and for the bankers.

One only has to descend from the tower and get back on the streets again to feel the pain being inflicted on the public from on high.