Tokyo, JAPAN — This booming economy, which includes the highest paid workers in the world, has exploited severely what an economy is supposed to be expanding. The well-being of consumers.
In some ways, consumers live in a state of near poverty by U.S. standards. Polls reflect that most Japanese feel poor.
Housing is the first shame of Japan, Inc. Renting a modest house costs $8,000 a month. Most Japanese do with much less — two to four room flats with a better than fifty/fifty chance of not having their individual toilets hooked into sewage systems.
To buy their own home is now beyond the hope of young Japanese couples. Land prices are so high that two thirds of the price of a home is the cost of land. So start with about a $500,000 price tag or nearly four times the average price of an American house.
What’s more, Japanese, who were lucky enough to buy their homes twenty or more years ago, before prices soared skyward, can’t sell unless they are prepared to pay a 75% capital gains tax.
Food prices are staggering. The best cuts of meat are $60 a pound with sirloin offered at $22 a pound. At one supermarket, I observed imported cantaloupes selling briskly at $8.00 each. During other times of the year they can sell for $40 each.
The average Japanese family pays over 32% of its income for food – double that of their American counterparts. A comparison of bread basket items in Washington, DC and Tokyo came out over two and a half times more expensive in Tokyo. (Washington, D.C. has the highest retail food prices in the country.)
First class restaurants make New York’s fanciest seem like bargain sales. I saw restaurants catering to patrons gracefully served by one waitress to a customer for several hours. The bill ranged from $200 to $300 per person, without vintage wines.
While there is virtually universal health insurance, the state of patient rights is primitive. Patients have no right of access to their medical records, no right to be informed of experimental drugs being used on them, no right to have their prescription drugs (sold to them by their doctor) labeled. In Japan cancer insurance finds many customers, yet patients are not told by their physicians that they have cancer or are dying from cancer.
Medical malpractice lawsuits are in a fledgling legal state, as are product liability lawsuits against manufacturers. People have great difficulty even finding an attorney because the government restricts the number of licensed lawyers drastically. In one western province with a 600,000 population, there are only twenty three attorneys. Many of Japan’s high prices are due to what the American Embassy here delicately calls “structural impediments” against lower-priced imports. Adding to this gouging are Japanese manufacturers of VCRs, TVs, autos and other consumer technologies who sell them products abroad more cheaply than they sell them to their own people.
There are several consumer associations and consumer cooperatives seeking stronger consumer laws and the right to file lawsuits in a framework that gives consumers at least a chance to win. Joining with them now in a drive for a national freedom of information law is the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations.
But only if the resurgent opposition parties adopt a strong consumer agenda in the forthcoming elections against the 40 year long domination of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) will the consumers, who pay the bills, begin to benefit from the Japanese economic colossus which was built so heavily at their expense.