Monday, January 25, 2010

the puppetmasters

Jan. 21, 2010, article copied from the Times Online
By Leo Lewis, Asia Business Correspondent

Desperate Japanese housewives
raid 'belly-button cash'

Japanese housewives, the invisible puppet-masters of Asia’s biggest economy, have begun raiding their stashes of “belly-button money” - the secret hoards of cash, stocks and financial assets they skim from the family budget and hope their husbands will never discover.

And, faced with long-term economic strife, those housewives who cannot bear to break into their hidden funds to pay for daily necessities are going to ever greater lengths to protect them – chiefly by serving bean-sprouts for dinner and slashing their husbands’ okozukai pocket money.

But financial hardship has forced many to use the money to make ends meet. The annual survey of housewives’ financial arrangements by Sompo Japan DIY Life Insurance showed that the average hesokuri – belly button – stash has plunged by 20 per cent since 2008 to an average of just 3.7 million yen (£25,000).

The Sompo survey also reveals alarming insights into why the housewives are so attached to their secret money: a good proportion are hiving-off the funds in the hope that they can secure a divorce at about the age of 50 and enjoy their late middle age in financial comfort and away from their husbands.

In some cases, through the use of judicious investment and first-class subterfuge, housewives who answered the survey have managed, over the course of some decades, to create secret belly-button portfolios worth over £1 million.

Alarmed by the country’s anaemic recovery, and by the relentless decline in wage packets that has continued unabated for 18 months, the housewives have made other dramatic changes to daily life. Spending on luxury goods and dining-out has tumbled sharply. At home, more and more are replacing meat with tofu and resorting to cooking a “nabe” – a watery, vegetable-heavy stew - for the main family meal.

Sompo’s annual survey of housewives is closely watched by Japanese economists: consumption represents half of Japanese GDP, and the traditional structure of Japanese households mean that the wives tend to wield absolute control on how all the family income is spent. Minoru Sugiyama, a Sompo spokesman, said that as the economy was getting worse “both the sentiment and actions of consumers have lost their vigour.”

Married male workers in Japan are broadly resigned to the fact that their salary will be handed directly to their wives each month and controlled by them. The best a man can hope is that she will be generous with his pocket money and allow him enough cash for beer, golf and a bit of pachinko (vertical pinball) gambling.

The housewife survey also offers guidance on the likely fate of the twice annual “bonus” lump sums that company employees receive as a regular part of their salaries. The bonuses themselves are expected to be smaller than in previous years and 70 per cent of women said they would use the entire sum on savings and loan repayments.

And in a heavy blow to the spending ambitions of men across the country, nearly 50 per cent of the housewives surveyed said that they did not plan to return a single yen of their husbands’ bonuses to them as pocket money.

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