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While big Japanese companies surge, smaller ones sink

Amid all the headlines about Japan's booming car and electronics exports, and stock markets awash with oil dollars, the bankruptcy of Kenji Shimizu's small construction materials business did not rate a single paragraph.

It was merely one of an average 1,600 companies currently "going under" each month in Japan, leaving behind bad debts and idle workers for whom the glitter is only on the surface.

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The billions of dollars in foreign investment pouring into the Tokyo Stock Exchange each month are regarded as a sign of international confidence in the strength and ability of the Japanese economy to overcome staggering oil price increases and continue making a profit.

But the attraction is a few glamour stocks like Sony, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toyota.

Almost unnoticed, until they collapse, are the thousands of small and medium-size enterprises in back streets across the nation struggling to survive rising costs and slumping sales in a harsh economic climate that favors the strong.

Private research organizations that specialize in such studies say the number of bankruptcies this year will probably be about the same as in 1978 and '79 -- around 17,000.

The two leading organizations, Tokyo Shoko Research and Teikoku Koshinsho, reported 12,424 bankruptcies (involving debts beyond the benchmark 10 million yen, or $46,000) between January and August this year.

Their combined debts were 1.833 trillion yen (about $9 billion.) Experts of the two firms reckon that at the current pace, the liabilities could well exceed the 1978 record of 2.475 trillion yen ($12.36 billion).

Few of the bankruptcies were sufficiently dramatic to merit much attention. An exception was the collapse of the "Yoshinoya" Beef Bowl company, a chain of cheap big-city eateries offering a standard lunch of strips of beef and vegetables on a bowl of rice for time- and budget-conscious people.

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Yoshinoya was one of 27 dramatic collapses this year with debts exceeding $25 million each. The companies involved represent a cross section of industrial sectors in trouble.

Four were in food processing, six in building houses and apartments for sale or rent, three in construction materials, three operating recreation-leisure businesses, three producing and handling miscellaneous articles for export, and one in textiles.

Kenji Shimizu's collapse was more modest, in keeping with the small business he build up in the construction boom of the 1960s and early '70s, when newly affluent Japanese indulged in their dream of owning "my home."

The company, with 22 employees, was typical of the Japanese business structure. Behind each "big fish" swim the minnows supplying it with minor components, often exclusively.

They sink or swim depending on their leader's ability to stay profitable in a dangerously fluctuating market. The big fish can survive prolonged bouts of starvation; the minnows cannot.

The government says most small and medium-size enterprises go bankrupt because of loose management, limited capital funds, poor production facilities, or a weak sales network.

Mr. Shimizu reckons that is a bit unfair and simplistic for many small entrepreneurs like him.

"The building boom collapsed in the late 1970 through no fault of ours. Inflation in raw material and land prices pushed home ownership out of the reach of millions. We suffered the backlash, and no amount of good management could have saved a tiny company like ours," he says.

There were a few exceptional factors for this year's bad showing:

* An unusually cool summer, which destroyed many seasonal food and leisure businesses.

* Cutbacks in recreation-leisure costs by many families trying to increase their savings in preparation for the "hard times" thought to be ahead.

* Further belt tightening in consumption by the public generally, due to steady increases in commodity prices and the failure of wages to catch up with the cost of living in recent years.

In addition, export industries were hit by the yen's increased value and shrinking overseas markets, plus rising production costs.

Japan still doesn't have an unemployment problem anywhere near as severe as that in the United States and Western Europe. But individual instances of hardship are the same the world over.

The Ministry of Labor supervises a complicated employment insurance plan as part of overall social security, requiring contributions from employer and employee.

An unemployed worker is entitled to between 60 and 80 percent of his pay (the rate increasing for those with lower daily wages) for a set period that depends on his age and how long he has been making insurance payments. The length of benefits ranges from 90 days and increase gradually until they reache 300 days for workers over 55 years of age.

But officials point out that many small companies don't make employment insurance payments. If they go bankrupt, employees can literally find themselves out on the streets with nothing.

The government tries hard to find fresh jobs for such people. But it's not easy.

first, most big Japanese companies these days are trying to reduce surplus staff by not taking on new people, especially the middle-aged. There is little job switching in Japan, and competition is tough for available jobs -- with preference invariably going to university graduates who can be paid less and trained from scratch.

Younger workers idled by company bankruptcy have the best chance of benefiting from a government job retraining program, which offers cash incentives to companies taking on such personnel.

Older workers who find work tend to end up with companies no less shaky than their previous one.

Kenji Shimizu, with debts of more than $800,000, is deeply depressed about his workers' future.

"There's not much I can do to help. They will get some employment insurance for a while. But it won't last long, and I don't rate their chances high of getting work in this particularly field.

"It's the typical boom-bust phenomenon that many Japanese industries below the big boys have to live with. I just never thought it would happen to me."

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