Suicides, Depression Unveil Japan's Angst
By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
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, scared 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 in more than 100 interviews with ordinary Japanese, prominent business and political leaders and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, it is clear that people are not immune to the economic crisis. Far from it, they said they feel it directly in their shrinking paychecks. They said bad news accumulated this year, and 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 don't trust it anymore. There is a debilitating angst, a feeling now 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 the Ueno train station in Tokyo, explained the feeling this way: "We feel we are being choked by cotton: softly, slowly, but surely."
Police notice the toll the financial problems are having on people in rising suicides; doctors see it in more depression, insomnia, excessive drinking, chain-smoking and ulcers. Bankruptcy lawyers can't keep up with the business. Creditors notice 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 the 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 -- scenes 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 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. In interviews with several doctors and psychiatrists, they said that the official estimate is that more than 24,000 Japanese will take their lives this year, but that number will vastly underestimate 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 are expected to 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 bad economic times -- from headaches to chest pain to the inability 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 that 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, as Hiroshi Itoh, a lawyer who knew all three, said, "everyone in their position in Japan thinks about it."
Success Gone Sour
In many ways, the life story of Masaaki Kobayashi is the story of Japan since World War II. He rose from poverty to ostentatious wealth and then fell from a mountain of debt.
Kobayashi, like modern Japan, was born amid the smoldering embers of the war. It was 1947, and Kobayashi's father, Shoichi, who came from generations of rice farmers, had just returned from selling vegetables to Japanese troops occupying Manchuria. When Japan was vanquished at the end of the war, the father had joined the sad procession back to his devastated homeland.
The elder Kobayashi raised his son and daughter in a rented room in the bombed-out ruins of Tokyo, where poverty was rampant and the family frequently had no money for electricity. Kobayashi raised goats, and Masaaki was up each morning before dawn to milk them and deliver the milk before school.
Kobayashi said he believes poverty motivated his son. Masaaki was forced to quit school at 16 to help with the goats, but soon he left to find something better.
"I'm a simple person and farming has always been my life," said the elder Kobayashi, who now tends cows on a small farm in the bamboo-forested hills east of Tokyo. "But my son, I was starting to see that he was a leader, and he could get people to do what he wanted them to do. Each person has his own special capacity. Mine is to be punctual and faithful, and his was to be something big."
In the mid-1960s, when the wizards at Sony had perfected transistor radios and giants such as Toyota and Honda were gearing up to dazzle the world, young Masaaki Kobayashi found his place on the edge of the revolution. By 1973, he started a business selling auto parts in what was fast becoming the world's vanguard car industry.
Auto Spot grew from a small storefront where Kobayashi worked and slept to a chain of 17 stores that employed more than 145 people. It had sales of more than $60 million a year. Kobayashi swooshed into the boom years of the 1980s like a surfer riding a huge wave. He was making a fortune, and, like everyone else in a nation that seemed almost drunk with wealth, he spent it in showy ways.
He bought racehorses, including Ines Fujin, which won the 1990 Japan Derby, the premier horse race here, similar in prestige to the Kentucky Derby. The first-prize purse was nearly $1 million, and it made Kobayashi officially a player in Japanese high society.
Photos taken that day show Kobayashi wearing a wreath of fresh flowers with two other men close by his side: Shoji and Sudoh. The three men had met more than 20 years earlier when they were all eager young men looking to make their mark in Tokyo's car industry.
According to friends and associates, the three became like family. It is not uncommon in Japan for business friendships to be closer than marriages; young businessmen, especially those of Kobayashi, Sudoh and Shoji's generation, often spend far more time at work than at home.
The three young entrepreneurs united by their passion for cars and sales success golfed and drank together, sang karaoke and played mah-jongg, gambled and lived together as a nearly inseparable threesome as their businesses flourished.
Shortly after Kobayashi's racehorse was crowned in the winner's circle in 1990, things began changing in Japan. The intoxication of the country's "bubble economy" was giving way to a painful morning after. Sky-high land prices fell back to as little as 30 percent of their former value. Banks that had lent billions suddenly were left hanging as real estate speculators went broke.
Kobayashi again found himself mirroring his country's fortunes. His success and taste of the high life made him keep looking for splashy big scores. He tried new car accessories, looking for that one hot product to strike it rich. Like the Japanese giants buying up Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach, Kobayashi wanted trophies, status, impact. Nothing panned out.
A large part of his problem was increased competition. Japan in the 1990s has been slowly dragged into the global free-market economy. Car owners in Japan now don't have to go to Kobayashi's store to get seat cushions but can order them on the Internet and from foreign mail-order catalogues. At the same time, trimming costs to compete often means trimming staff, and that is hard to do in Japan, where loyalty to company often has been treasured more than loyalty to one's wife.
Lawyers say Shoji and Sudoh begged Kobayashi to stop "throwing his money away," that he was spending too excessively, but he ignored them. And his troubles soon became theirs.
Kobayashi, Sudoh and Shoji operated their businesses in the traditional "Asian Way," where friendly personal ties were more important than the bloodless Western system of credit checks and bottom lines. Banks and companies here have lent colossal sums of money, not because they scrutinized business plans and accounting books but because of school or family ties.
In hard times, it's a messy system. One Japanese bankruptcy often means many friends and related businesses are dragged down too. When Kobayashi's business selling leather steering-wheel covers, funky fluorescent lighting and other accessories got into trouble, he did what was natural here. He turned to his buddies, Shoji and Sudoh. Kobayashi had helped them get started in business and been their mentors; now they, by custom, had little choice but to help the man who had helped them. They bailed out Kobayashi, to the point where they were hollowing out their own companies' reserves. According to lawyers now sifting through the tragedy, Shoji had floated $650,000 to Kobayashi, and Sudoh had quietly passed him $225,000.
The loans were not completely acts of charity: Shoji and Sudoh relied heavily on Kobayashi's stores to move their products. Their businesses were small fish riding the wake of Kobayashi's big-league success; if he failed, they could go down too.
Like Kobayashi, one of Japan's main problems is debt -- and the accounting practices that hide it. Because of accounting methods that mask the real debt, problems in banks and companies here often have been allowed to balloon to gargantuan proportions before anyone realizes.
The lawyers assigned to liquidate Kobayashi's business say that his books were also unclear, and the extent of his problems was hidden from his business associates. None of it was covered in any systematic accounting trail, and it only came to light after their deaths.
It was Kobayashi's deep feeling of "responsibility" to his employees that he wrote about in his dying notes, his lawyers said. He said he was "going to die so that his company would live." His life insurance payouts were to make up for his mismanagement. Then, because of his mistakes, nobody would lose their job.
"Why did he do it?" Sudoh's mother said one day recently outside her home. "I have asked that question myself. . . . I have been told he felt responsibility to his own company, to his employees, that he felt so indebted to Mr. Kobayashi."
Sudoh's friends said he was talking more and more often about how "the business world was changing too fast for me." According to one television news account, one of Sudoh's notes said: "The [business] system we learned is no longer valid."
If Japan's bankruptcy laws weren't so harsh, so unforgiving, maybe this wouldn't have happened, five lawyers connected to the suicides agreed. It has been nearly impossible to get a bank loan to start up a business unless one's home or that of a relative is placed on the line as collateral. In the United States, a much thicker line is drawn between personal and business risk.
Attorney Itoh said: "Entrepreneurs know if they fail, they lose everything. If Japan doesn't limit personal liability in company bankruptcies it cannot nurture the entrepreneurial spirit it needs to survive. . . . Your whole personal life is wiped out if your business fails."
In the end, only Sudoh's company survived.
On the day they died, the three men drove to Kunitachi, about 20 miles west of Tokyo. There they huddled together in the anonymity of a tiny restaurant inside a convenience store on a busy street. Employees there recall that the three men talked seriously at a table near the front window, between stacks of cigarette cartons piled against a beer cooler and a half-dead potted plant. Their lunch was rubbery boiled beef and onions over rice, served with a view of two trash cans.
After eating, they walked next door to the Hotel le Piano, a classic Japanese "love hotel," where trysting couples find a cheap, discreet rendezvous spot in the anonymity of a drab Tokyo suburb.
In the faux marble lobby, next to a white grand piano trimmed in gold, the men booked their rooms from a clerk hidden behind frosted glass. Payment -- $55 for an eight-hour stay -- and three room keys passed through a tiny slot.
Among them, they scribbled more than a dozen notes, apologizing that this was the only way to help their families from losing everything and to keep their companies going. That very day, Kobayashi changed his life insurance policy so that more than $1.5 million that was slated for his wife would go to his company. If he kept the company going, his family would be okay. But if the company went bankrupt, creditors would take his home, their cars, his horses, his bankbook.
Sometime after 4 p.m. on that cold, rainy Wednesday, the men adjourned to theirThen, in the depressing fakery of a gilded flophouse, three friends who once had it all tossed nooses over ceiling heating ducts, kicked the chairs out from under themselves and dropped a few violent inches to their deaths.
Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo and researcher Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company