Self-restraint set to affect post-quake Japanese economy

By Yo Tong on April 1, 2011
Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge, both famous landmarks in Tokyo, switched off illuminations in a move to save energy after the March 11 earthquake.

Spring has historically been the festive season in Japan, highlighted by delightful gatherings for cherry blossom viewing, graduation parties from schools and colleges as well as farewell and welcome parties for employees in companies nationwide. However, the dire atmosphere triggered by recent natural disasters, accentuated by the Japanese custom of self-restraint, has also started to severely affect the country’s economy.

Two peculiar characteristics of the Japanese culture are the pursuit of solidarity and an obsessive regard of others' feelings, thoughts and opinions. Said behavior, in particular following the events of March 11th, has garnered much international admiration

The concept of jishuku, or “self-restraint”, is deeply entwined within the aforementioned characteristics. The effect: every individual becomes a check to himself so to not be a nuisance to his or her peers. Recently this trait has intensified, as signs of jishuku start to drub the Japanese economy.

Consumer spending makes up about 60% of the Japanese GDP, and its impending contraction will further mar the post-tsunami Japanese economy, since the government’s capability in fixed capital formation might be constricted by its astronomical debt-to-GDP ratio.

Within the Japanese video-game industry, one of the nation’s cultural and economic “soft powers,” several game publishers decided against the release of products following the devastating earthquake.

The manufacturer Irem (Airemu in Japanese) will cease development of its PlayStation 3 game “Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4 Summer Memories” (i.e. “A city in desperate circumstances 4”), according to an official statement from Irem. The three prequels of the game face de-facto elimination, as they will no longer be produced once the current copies are sold out. In these adventure games, the protagonist must escape a city amidst natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tornadoes. “Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4 Summer Memories” was originally to be released March 10th, but technical development issues forced Irem to delay its release date to spring this year.

According to Nintendo, other video-game developers also delayed the release of eight titles since the March 11 earthquake struck northeastern Japan. Three of them are designed for the Wii home video-game console and five of them are for the 3DS, Nintendo’s new hand-held console.

However, the video-game industry is not alone in performing adjournments to its releases.

In the film industry, Japanese distributors have delayed the opening of a number of movies to the public in local cinemas. Hereafter, Unthinkable (starring Samuel Jackson), Jackass 3D, Sanctum (produced by James Cameron), and Aftershock (or “Tangshan Great Earthquake” in Chinese) are among the deferred titles, according to Japanese blogger Takamori Ikuya. Several other titles have also temporarily halted production.

Self-restraint has even started to severely affect the catering industry.

In Tokyo, the orders of one appetizer provider fell more than 90% from previous years, according to a report by Jiji News. In Happo-en, a popular wedding venue in Tokyo, over 60 reservations have been postponed and at least three have been canceled. “Self-restraint” was cited as the primary reason for all cancellations and deferments.

In the southwestern region of Kyushu, lighting in several famous cherry-blossom viewing spots has been turned off and promotional events have been either downscaled or canceled, according to reports by daily newspapers Nishinippon Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun.

Given that this “jishuku” mentality results in a considerable deceleration in consumptions and expenditures, Michelin has decided to delay the publication of its Bonnes Petites Tables Tokyo. The Japanese restaurant rating guide is to be published on 21 April, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun. The release of new products and related marketing campaigns have also been affected: Panasonic has canceled two promotional campaigns for its new rice-cooker and microwave oven, Asahi Shimbun reported.

Suzuki Kensuke, an associate professor of sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University, is quoted by New York Times as saying that,

With the extensive coverage of the disaster zone, jishuku has become a way for people in Tokyo to express solidarity at a time of crisis [...] Jishuku is the easiest way to feel like you’re doing something, though perhaps there isn’t much thought put into how much these actions make a difference overall.

Izumi Masatoshi, an associate professor of social psychology at Dohto University, pointed out that another reason why people display jishuku is to prevent themselves from being considered indiscreet by their peers. He argued that the prolongation of such self-refrain will most likely result in social stagnation and stress accumulation – two problems that Japan should probably do without for the moment.

In the meanwhile, the operator of the damaged Fukushima plant, TEPCO, continues to battle the radioactive leaks. The company has profusely apologized for the disasters at their plants, and they are destined to undergo much self-restraint in coming years, as public concerns mount. The company’s share price has nosedived by almost 80% since the incident, and reached 461 JPY ($5.4 USD), the all-time low in nearly half a century on 31 March. Meanwhile, the Credit Rating Agency, Moody’s, cut its long time rating of TEPCO from A1 to Baa1, thus labeling the electric service provider as a “medium grade” company with a “moderate credit risk.”

The actual economic impact of this incredible national display of jishuku is unclear. Whether it will be beneficial in the long-run or backfire, crippling the country, is yet to be ascertained.