When Fukui Starts to Go, You Know There's a Problem

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FRANK GIBNEY JR. FukuiFukui Japan doesn't get much better than Fukui. a run of lush farms, rocky coast and pine-clad mountains on the Japan Sea, the prefecture offers its 830,000 residents the opportunity to do what few Japanese can: spread out. Far from the crowded warrens of metropolitan Tokyo, homes in the region's capital, Fukui city, even have yards. The air is pristine. Households boast two, sometimes three cars, yet traffic is seldom a problem on Fukui's streets. When asked to offer examples of recent crimes (the crime rate is soaring in most of urban Japan) local policemen have to stop and think. Says Kotaro Ono, one of the area's prominent tycoons: We are No. 1 in Japan when it comes to quality of life.That is Fukui's favorite statistic. Headlines in Tokyo may scream economic crisis, but in rural Japan, away from the grim faces on the Shin-kansen bullet train, Japanese are still remarkably sanguine about their fate. Ono argues that he and other businessmen in the provinces never adopted the spendthrift ways that their Tokyo counterparts first embraced in the 1980s. As a result, institutions like Fukui Bank, the area's only regional financial institution, remain sound. Local officials say that, because the prefecture has long depended on a few niche industries--textiles, eyeglass frames and electric machinery--economic policy is solidly conservative. We couldn't afford to be bubbled, says Ono with a chuckle.Such optimism helps explain why until recently the urgency of Japan's worst economic turndown in half a century did not seem to be registering outside Tokyo. But like the rest of the country, Fukui's prosperity is less the result of careful planning than of billions of dollars in government spending. After a 1948 earthquake devastated the area, Tokyo paid to rebuild Fukui. Eventually, the prefecture became the core of Japan's nuclear power industry, which also lured ancillary government development funds (though two of Fukui's 13 nuclear plants have suffered serious accidents in the last decade). During the 1970s, government money pushed the development of the textile and eyeglass-frame business. The result, as the gigantic red spectacles atop the Sabae optical museum attest: Fukui produces 90% of Japan's frames.Now there are stiff new challenges, not least of all Japan's recession. Key local industries are increasingly threatened by competition from China and Southeast Asia. To keep an edge, companies have moved production offshore and come up with innovative new products. (Fukui's polyester fabrics are so well crafted that top designers like Issey Miyake swear by them.) Instead of being allowed to fail, less creative companies were once propped up by local banks. No more. In the old days there was no question whether a loan was good or bad, says a former Fukui Bank executive. We funded everything. The banker remembers approaching giant textile maker Toray Industries to guarantee new lines of credit for some companies. In 1996, when a big local credit union went bankrupt, Fukui Bank took over its balance sheet. As it does all over Japan, the web of financial responsibilities entwines everyone. Thus, says the former banker, shutting down the banks would blow up the local economy. The central government has to move faster to save the situation.Kazuo Miwa could not agree more. Fukui's director of commerce runs his fingers down a sheet of frightening statistics: in nearly every category, local output and income are down 10% to 20% this year. Although Fukui Bank is reportedly sound, there have been 110 bankruptcies this year, a record. The local branch of Hello Work, a public employment office, is bustling at lunchtime. And on the road to the 700-year-old Eiheiji Temple, shopowners line both sides of the street, waving trinkets and beckoning as if they haven't seen a customer in weeks. People are starting to freeze up, says Miwa. They won't spend money because they don't know what will happen next. With such uncertainty lapping at the scenic Japan Sea coast, it may not be long before Fukui's traditional optimism is submerged by the rest of the country's crisis.