TOKYO, DEC. 11 -- Barbie dolls on sale here sport chic fur coats, and so does nearly everyone else -- or so it often seems in this bustling, prosperous country.
Minks are only one hot-selling luxury item. The list is long: gold-plated coffee pots, diamonds, expensive art work, pricey foreign cars, gold coins, $700 leather baby strollers, to name only a few.
After years of scraping and struggling, the Japanese finally are basking in their affluence, spending their yen in ways that leave American businessmen and tourists, with an ever-diminishing dollar, feeling like Third World visitors, unable to afford what the Japanese seem to buy easily.
According to economists, such conspicuous wealth among the Japanese is relatively new, created in the past two years by the rising value of the yen and the falling dollar. In trading today, the dollar closed at 128.75 yen, its lowest level in the postwar period.
Last year Japan became the world's largest creditor nation, while the United States tumbled deeper into debt; this autumn Japan outstripped the United States in per capita gross national product. According to recent calculations by Mitsubishi Research Institute, per capita GNP in the United States is about $17,000; in Japan, it is now more than $20,000.
The Japanese complain, however, that they do not feel as wealthy as the statistics make them appear. In many ways, the average American does live much better than the average Japanese, who must contend with cramped and expensive living quarters, small and often scruffy parks, costly food, long commutes to work and little leisure time.
"I don't think many people feel they are that rich because their basic necessities, by international standards, are very poor. But if you define affluence as being able to afford, or having to afford, very expensive goods and services, then I suppose we are very affluent," said Mariko Fujiwara, an anthropologist and consultant to Hakuhodo advertising agency.
Because the strong yen has put imported luxuries within the reach of more Japanese and because many young couples have given up on saving to buy housing that has become unaffordably expensive, people here are visibly spending more money on everything from impressionist paintings to "gourmet" ramen noodles. The Japanese are eating out more often, joining health clubs for the first time, investing in real estate and the stock market and traveling abroad in record numbers.
While American merchants fret that business could be better this holiday season, there are no such complaints in Japan, least of all in its money and population center, Tokyo.
At Mitsukoshi department store, for instance, diamond and jewelry sales are up 20 percent over last year, fur coat sales 15 percent and Persian rug sales a staggering 40 percent. The high yen also has made Tiffany silver relatively inexpensive for the Japanese, and sales at that counter are booming.
Paintings, too, are highly coveted, particularly those of the French impressionist and classical Japanese schools. Koichi Mitsunaga, deputy manager of Mitsukoshi's main store, said art sales are 40 percent higher than last year. The Japanese appetite for artwork has become so voracious that big auction houses have begun previewing the paintings to be auctioned later in New York or Paris. And for good reason: At a recent Parisian auction involving 43 French masterpieces that went for $32.5 million, one-third of the art was bought by Japanese.
Consider these other recent signs of wealth:
Purchases of gold coins took off two years ago, and they continue to be such popular items that some trend-conscious bars are freezing them and serving them in drinks in place of ice cubes. A $26 bar of soap laced with gold flakes has proven particularly popular among women in their 40s.
The average Japanese couple last year spent about $58,000 to get married and go on a honeymoon, according to a recent survey by Sanwa Bank.
More than 5.5 million Japanese traveled abroad last year, twice as many as 10 years ago. With the yen so high, many of these travelers came home marveling at how cheap the rest of the world seemed, how even the best hotels and restaurants were easily affordable. Said one Japanese reporter who recently returned from the United States: "I was really surprised at how inexpensive everything was, even in New York."
A department store in Yokohama is now selling mink coats for dogs. In addition to the $7,400 fur, the Sogo department store also is offering a high-tech dog house with sun roof and electric doors, as well as an assortment of pooch attire, from tuxedos to wedding dresses. "Pet owners are sick of just a collar" on their dog, said pet section chief Hironobu Kamimega.
While Japanese houses are typically tiny, the occupants clearly are willing to spend money to decorate and stock them with the best goods. Expensive furniture, top quality European china, $2,000 32-inch color television sets and $250 electronic bread makers are top sellers this year.
The Japanese desire to buy the newest and the best, coupled with the growing feeling of impoverishment among many foreigners, has led to a new trend: trash scavenging at night by foreigners, who reportedly collect all sorts of usable furniture and electronic goods.
A variety of status items, such as Louis Vuitton clutch bags, Gucci shoes, Burberry raincoats and Filofax datebooks, are almost ubiquitous here, carried or worn by even the most junior office workers, who also can be seen clad in fur jackets as they wait to board the commuter train into Tokyo.
"Purchasing by Japanese used to be characterized by cautiousness and steadiness," a sales manager at Tokyu department store said. "But in fact, the complete opposite phenomenon is now the norm, and high-quality fashion goods are selling like hot cakes while bargain items remain on the shelves."
So far, the affluent Japanese are still saving plenty of money -- much more, in fact, than their counterparts anywhere in the world, a partial cause of Japan's widening trade imbalance with the United States. The gap was announced yesterday as a record $17.6 billion in October, 25 percent higher than September's deficit.
"Japan's biggest problem is we save too much. Our greatest problem is we don't know how to enjoy life yet," said Taichi Sakaiya, who has written extensively on the subject.
But analysts here also point out that young people, who will be a driving force in the Japanese economy for years to come, are eager consumers, much less willing than their parents to salt away their yen.
That may change, but for now, as one childless couple in their thirties told an economic journal here recently, "we prefer a richer present to a rosy future."
It is, after all, difficult to imagine a future much richer than the present, when Japanese flock to neighborhood supermarkets for ice cubes made from 10,000-year-old Artic icebergs ($7.50 for a bag of 10 large cubes) and a chic department store reports huge customer interest in $5 cans of mint-scented oxygen.