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Japan's recovery not felt at street level
[TOKYO] Like every day for the past 40 years, Kunihiko Kato dusts down the shelves at his electrical goods shop and meticulously lays out his selection of batteries. But the customers have long since gone as Japan's economy languishes.
"We used to sell a lot of TVs, but now..." tails off the 76-year-old glumly, as he recalls Japan's world-beating "bubble" economic boom in the 1980s.
"We have been going downhill for a long time," Mr Kato tells AFP.
Reviving the once-great Japanese economy is the key domestic battleground of Sunday's election, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touting his trademark "Abenomics" policy as the best way to secure the country's future.
Mr Abe says his "Abenomics", a combination of ultra-loose monetary policy and big fiscal spending, has resulted in strong growth and solid business confidence in the world's third-largest economy.
On the face of it, the Japanese economy is in relatively robust health, enjoying its longest period of expansion in more than a decade, with low unemployment and the stock market at a 21-year high.
But this masks a seemingly unwinnable fight against deflation and a mountain of debt twice the entire economic output of the country.
And at Mr Kato's shopping area in Tokyo, there is precious little sign of the benefits of "Abenomics".
One shop owner, 67-year-old Kozo Ito, says that visitors to the "Shotengai" - or traditional Japanese shopping street - think there is a bank holiday because so many shops are shuttered.
"I tell them: 'No, they have just shut down'," he says.
Like Mr Kato, Ito reflects wistfully on the post-war boom times that extended into the 1970s and 1980s.
Mr Ito tells AFP that he now makes in one month what he used to make in a day at his butcher's shop, opened by his father in the year he was born.
He snorts at the idea that "Abenomics" has improved lives for ordinary people.
"I don't feel it's real. There is a widening gap between workers at big companies and those on temporary contracts."
'I MISS THOSE DAYS'
Throughout the street, elderly shopkeepers told AFP the same story, of a steady decline, reflecting a pattern seen in the wider economy.
Michiko Hachiman, 72, said her clothes shop used to be packed in the evenings but complained that young people cannot afford her boutique offerings, preferring to pick up fashion items at cheaper stores.
"On a good day, when I was just married, we had lots of customers here in the evening because there were many meat and deli shops. I miss those days but they will not come back," she said.
She said the effects of "Abenomics" were not trickling down to street level.
"The economy might be good for big companies but they are keeping all the profits and aren't sharing them with the employees, right?
She said her sons "don't really see their pay rising for all their hard work." Ms Hachiman put her finger on another key election battleground - in fact the reason Mr Abe called the vote - a lack of support for childcare provision that is keeping many young women out of the labour force.
Young people nowadays simply cannot afford to have children, she argued.
Despite the economic expansion, median household income stood at 4.28 million yen (S$51,660) in 2015, according to the latest available figure, a drop of 20 per cent compared to two decades ago.
'IF NOT NOW, WHEN?'
Mr Abe has vowed to use part of a planned sales tax hike to make some childcare facilities free of charge, arguing that a declining working-age population faces having to support a rapidly ageing society.
His main opponent, popular Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, has called for a freeze in the sales tax hike, arguing it could throttle growth.
Yuichiro Yanai, an economist at Barclays, noted Japan had a rare opportunity to raise taxes, given a strong economy, low unemployment and solid government.
"If not now, then when?" said the economist, adding that there was a clear need to swell the coffers.
Mr Abe says he will start a "productivity revolution" through measures ranging from deregulation to tax reform in order to boost people's income.
But for Mr Kato, the electrical goods shop owner, these are nothing but empty slogans.
"We may not be making enough efforts on our own... but they can't say how they (the reforms) could reach us," he said.
"It always sounds like somebody else's business to me."