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In This Series
  • Part One: Middle Class Plunging Back Into Poverty
  • Part Two: A Generation Lost to Destitution
  • Part Three:
    From Boom to Bust
  • Part Four: In Japan, three friends commit suicide
  • Part Five:
    S. Korea's Middle Class Hides Its Despair
  • Part Six: Indonesia's Scapegoats
  • Part Seven: Indonesia's Scapegoats
  • Part Eight: Crises Teach Graduates New Lessons

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  •   Asia's Broken Lives
    Death of 3 Salesmen – Partners in Suicide

    Part of an occasional series

    Shoichi Kobayashi cried as he spoke about his son Masaaki, who committed suicide to save his company from bankruptcy. It went under anyway.
    By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Photos by Nancy Andrews
    Wednesday, October 7, 1998; Page A1

    TOKYO – There were beer cans and whiskey on the table, so maybe there was a final toast. Perhaps the three men raised their glasses to friendship, to the 20 years of golf and cards and growing older together, to the business deals that made them once so rich and happy, and then so terribly sad.

    The maybes are endless and haunting. The facts are icily simple: Last Feb. 25, three middle-aged men, whose once thriving auto-parts businesses were facing bankruptcy, hanged themselves together in a cheap hotel in suburban Tokyo.

    The three company presidents, who once dined extravagantly and drove shiny Mercedes-Benz sedans, ate $3 bowls of convenience-store rice as their last meal. Then the men – each a husband and father – sliced a rope into identical lengths, walked into adjoining rooms and killed themselves. They left notes directing that their life insurance payoffs be used to try to save their companies. One of the men, fearful of what he was about to do, apparently asked his friends to tie his hands behind his back.

    "He bet his life on that company; it was his reason for living," said Shoichi Kobayashi, whose son, Masaaki Kobayashi, 51, had been one of the most successful auto-parts dealers in Tokyo. Wiping tears from his tired eyes, the father said: "But I wish with all my heart that he was still alive, even if he was a homeless beggar."

    Even in a land where suicide is as ancient and honored as the samurai, the death pact among Kobayashi, Yoshimi Shoji, 49, and Masaru Sudoh, 49, was shocking – perhaps because it gave names and faces to the invisible anxiety that is causing so much pain in Japan.

    The Asian economic crisis struck like lightning 15 months ago, collapsing the booming economies of Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea and shattering millions of lives. Many middle-class people there no longer can afford the same standard of living, of eating, of health and of education for their children. Poor people, who already knew little comfort, have been pushed deeper into poverty, malnutrition and disease.

    But in Japan, the effects on people – as well as the crisis itself – are different. Rather than a sudden bolt out of the blue, Japan's prolonged recession has been more like eight years of drizzling rain that has left people depressed and feeling that the sky might never be bright again.

    Here in this rich country, where personal savings average more than $70,000 for every man, woman and child, people are not going hungry. Children are healthy and in fine schools. This year, there has been a noticeable surge in homeless people along the banks of Tokyo rivers and in its train stations, but homelessness is nowhere near the scale seen, for example, in New York.

    But more than 100 interviews with ordinary Japanese, prominent business and political leaders, and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, made clear that people are not immune to the economic crisis. Far from it. They said they feel it directly in their shrinking paychecks and that their sense of security has been shattered by bankruptcies and unemployment rising to levels not seen since World War II. After decades of believing that their government would deliver a more comfortable life, many said they no longer trust it. There is a debilitating angst here, a feeling that Japan's prosperous heyday is over, gone forever.

    "In rural China, they don't have toilets yet, but they have the feeling that they are on the rise," said Hiroshi Aoki, 30, a translator. "In Japan, where people have the latest electronic gadget, there is a feeling of decline."

    Kiyoshi Saito, 48, who sells tea outside Tokyo's Ueno train station, explained the feeling this way: "We feel we are being choked by cotton – softly, slowly, but surely."

    Flight From Failure

    Police notice the toll financial problems are taking on people in the rising number of suicides; doctors see it in more depression, insomnia, excessive drinking, chain-smoking and ulcers. Bankruptcy lawyers can't keep up with the business. Creditors noticed something new this year too: More than 100,000 people have walked away from their debts and their lives, abandoning their homes and identities in the dark of night and hiding in some distant part of this island nation. Many of those in hiding are hounded by loan sharks and cannot register their children's births for fear of being found by Japan's hyper-harassing creditors.

    Kenji Utsunomiya is a bankruptcy lawyer who handles many of these cases, such as that of a couple who ran away from their Tokyo home renovation business as debts piled to $2 million. When they went into hiding, creditors moved into their house in the Hachioji section of Tokyo, their lawyer said.

    The couple, like many small business owners here who have a difficult time getting bank loans for business ventures, borrowed money from non-bank lenders, some of whom are connected to the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Such lenders routinely charge interest rates of 28 percent to 40 percent. If payments are not prompt, these lenders often make embarrassing appearances in the workplace or pestering middle-of-the-night calls to relatives – incidents that are becoming more common in debt-ridden Japan.

    "Part of the mental pressure, the mental fatigue, is the shame from within, and part of it is the constant harassment from creditors," said Utsunomiya. He estimates that a record 1.5 million Japanese are on the verge of personal bankruptcy.

    Of course, the Japanese economy is vast and sophisticated, and many people here are still wealthy and optimistic. Some economists and people believe that Japan has nothing to fret about, that the nation will solve its problems and remain the second-most-dominant economy in the world – or better.

    They may be right, but that doesn't lessen the pain and anxiety that Yoshiko Sudoh, 74, the mother of one of the men who hanged himself, sees all around her. "People feel tremendous pressure," she said. At no time since World War II has she seen "everyone so anxious, so worried about the future. ... It is making some people physically sick."

    In the most extreme cases, it is making people feel so hopeless that they are taking their own lives. Several doctors and psychiatrists said in interviews that the official projection of more than 24,000 suicides here this year vastly underestimates the soaring problem. If a person dies in a hospital more than 24 hours after the attempt, for example, suicide often is not listed as the official cause of death, they said.

    At least 50,000 Japanese will be hospitalized this year after trying to kill themselves, according to what the doctors described as conservative estimates. "It is a dramatic change from 10 years ago," said Jiro Suzuki, president of the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology. "We have many, many suicides and many, many cases where people just disappear."

    Psychiatrist Haruyoshi Yamamoto has been practicing for 26 years, and he said he has never seen so many people depressed and suicidal. "I believe the number of people who want to kill themselves, those that feel hopeless, is absolutely going up," said Yamamoto, who practices in Yokohama. He said he is seeing a spectrum of physical and psychological reactions to the hard economic times – from headaches to chest pains to an inability of some people to focus or even show up for work on time.

    Six months ago, the prevailing wisdom here was that despite the economic downturn, the Japanese people were oblivious to it and content. Diplomats, academics, analysts and journalists proclaimed repeatedly that Japan's high savings rate and relatively low unemployment cushioned the average person from the effects of the economic crisis. Days before a key national election in July, it was hard to find a pundit who believed people were suffering enough to vote against the ruling political party, which had piloted the nation into this nose dive. But voters did just that, and the prime minister was forced to resign.

    The "golden recession" in Japan, one that was on the balance sheets but not felt in the homes of average Japanese, has turned out to be not so golden after all. A future that not long ago seemed bright as diamonds is now facing "its darkest hours," said the nation's top economic official, Taichi Sakaiya.

    Sakaiya, the director general of the Economic Planning Agency, said in an interview that it is no wonder there is such anxiety. All people hear about is that the national pension system is going bankrupt, the national government is in deficit, manufacturing productivity is dropping, and Japan is more rapidly than any other country in history becoming a nation of old people.

    "The leaders of the country need to explain that these changes are not coming so dramatically and quickly. Then people would relax, and this anxiety would decrease. We have to explain that the future of Japan is not so pessimistic," he said.

    Obuchi, who took office two months ago, said he wants to restore people's "peace of mind" and "remake Japan into a place people can believe in." Japan's future may depend it.

    Fear that the hard times are just beginning is perhaps the biggest enemy of the government's efforts to restart the economy. It is the key reason people are buying less of just about everything – with the notable exception of wine. There is a glut of unsold cars and houses. Department stores are not moving merchandise fast enough to make profits. Housewives are cutting back on electricity and even the hours their children go to after-school tutoring – once a sacred expenditure.

    This new Japanese tendency to "over-save," as President Clinton recently described it, is a key reason so many companies are struggling. The ripples are being felt from the lobster grounds of Maine to the hotels of Australia.

    "What am I going to do if this really isn't the bottom?" said the weary owner of an electronic-parts factory on Keihin Island near Tokyo Bay. His annual sales have dropped from $1 million to $320,000 in the last couple of years. "We sell parts to Honda and Toyota, and people are not buying from them, so we are out of luck."

    Teruko Arai, 69, said so few customers now come into her candy and dried food shop in western Tokyo that business is 30 percent of what it was in the 1980s. "I am not just worried about the future," Arai said. "I am worried about right now."

    To those outside Japan, it is not easy to understand why the three family men who adored their children and had so much life yet to live hanged themselves. But, said Hiroshi Itoh, a lawyer who knew all three, "everyone in their position in Japan thinks about it."

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