Small businesses ask for restraint with the self-restraint
Normally this time of year people are in a party mood, what with the cherry trees blooming, temperatures rising and students on spring break. That mood has been effectively dampened by the enormous suffering up north, but recreation in general is being discouraged by several related factors, such as the call for energy conservation and reduced public transportation. Small businesses, especially restaurants, bars and events promoters, are being hit the hardest, even if their enterprises were not affected directly by the earthquake.
They certainly don’t appreciate the well-meaning but short-sighted official requests for jishuku, or self-restraint. Making such a request sounds paradoxical: Can self-restraint be compelled from above? At a press conference on April 1, Renho, the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker who was put in charge of energy conservation, blasted Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara for a remark he made implying that it’s unseemly for people to want to “drink and chat” at a time like this. Renho said that Ishihara shouldn’t use his political platform to “restrain people’s freedoms and social activities,” which have negative economic consequences.
According to the Fuji TV morning show, “Toku Da Ne,” as of April 1, 1,320 concerts and other events featuring foreign performers had been canceled due to fears of radiation from the damaged Fukushima power plant. In fact, one events company has already gone out of business as a result, and that company is headquartered in Fukuoka.
Those cancellations can’t be helped. What’s more problematic is that many Japanese are being made to feel guilty about going out and spending money. Fuji TV cited a survey of 301 small businesses in Tokyo. Eighty percent said that their business has fallen off sharply since March 11. So one French restaurant decided to buck the whole jishuku movement and started advertising a 30 percent discount on all meals for the time being. They’ve been packed ever since.
Obviously, people want to get back to normal, but they need to be reassured that they are not doing anything wrong. Fuji TV interviewed some Osaka merchants about their experience following the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Kobe was leveled, and neighboring Osaka, which was relatively untouched, fell under the jishuku cloud. “It lasted about a month,” said one man who runs a confectionery. Then the merchants association realized that the best way to pull Kobe out of its depression was to go ahead with their usual community festivals and invite the people of Kobe to participate. The economic situation picked up almost immediately, and Kobe’s own recovery became more assured.
Tokyo is too far from the worst-hit areas of the disaster to make a proper analogy with the Kobe-Osaka situation, but the capital’s economic health certainly has an effect on recovery efforts. If consumption falters, recovery will take longer. As the Fuji TV report pointed out, self-restraint is impractical. The Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo, which is considered one of Japan’s three big local festivals, was cancelled soon after the disaster, even though it doesn’t take place until May. The organizers decided to donate the cost of the festival, about ¥50 million, to the disaster victims. But as one reporter commented, they probably could raise more money if they held the festival and solicited donations from the people who attended. As it stands, local businesses in Kanda, which rely on the festival for a good portion of their annual revenue, are needlessly being made to suffer, too. Thanks to jishuku, the Asakusa Sanja Festival and even the Tokyo Bay Fireworks display in August have also been cancelled.
Even the explanation that people should restrain themselves for the purpose of conserving energy doesn’t make complete sense. Renho pointed out that calls for convenience stores to close after midnight miss the mark. Electricity usage is at a minimum during the wee hours, so it makes absolutely no difference in terms of conservation if convenience stores close.
The same goes for vending machines, which actually provide a valuable service by lighting up the streets late at night. And as much as we all hate Tokyo Electric Power Co. right now, it’s important for them to make as much money as possible because they’re going to be paying out enormous compensation to the victims of the nuclear disaster. The less money they make on electricity fees, the less money they have to pay out, and any shortfalls in compensation will be covered by the central government. So either way we all pay for Tepco’s mistakes, either through our electricity bills or through our taxes. At least if we pay through our electric bills, we can enjoy ourselves, and boost the economy, in the process.