TOKYO – Takazumi Fukuoka should be exactly what Japan needs to get its economy moving again. An art director at a small online media company, he has a free-spending social life, and as a part-time D.J., he often buys records in the music shops of Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district. He eats and drinks out regularly, too.
But his salary has barely budged in recent years. So he is spending every yen he earns.
“I’m not saving,” said Mr. Fukuoka, 30. “There are people my age who are married with kids and have their own houses, but I don’t have any of that.”
It is an increasingly common refrain in Japan – and one that complicates efforts to revitalize the country’s economy.
The country’s savings rate, long one of the highest, is now below zero. By comparison, the savings rate in Germany is forecast to be near 10 percent this year.
For decades, many Japanese hoarded cash, especially after World War II, when protections like unemployment insurance and public pensions were scarce.
New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to inject life into the lackluster economy, in part by getting people to spend more.
Yet stagnant wages mean many cannot do so without shortchanging their futures. Japan’s large aging population – a quarter of the population is now over 65 – is already spending saving, and younger people aren’t filling the void.
About 40 percent of unmarried adults do not save, nor do 30 percent of families, according to the Central Council for Financial Services Information, a research group A decade ago, the ratio for both groups was about 10 percentage points lower.
Japan’s drop in savings has coincided with an erosion in pay and job security for many workers, especially younger ones.
Recently announced pay increases at Toyota, Panasonic and others apply to unionized, full-time employees. Many who don’t belong to that group aren’t spending more; they just have less to set aside. Now, there are growing fears about the ability of an overburdened pension system to support them in retirement.
Mitsuaki Yokoyama, who writes best-selling books on how to save money, promises to help readers with low incomes stabilize their finances. In the past, his audience was people in their 50s and 60s.
“Now there are more young people,” he said. “Their salaries aren’t going up and they don’t know what to do.”
Wages have been stuck at the levels of two decades ago.
“Between my wife and I, we have two incomes, so I feel like we should be able to save more,” said Kozo Shimoda, 37, who manages the online shopping site of an apparel company. “But our savings isn’t increasing, so I don’t feel satisfied or secure.”
The national household savings rate slipped to minus 1.3 percent in the last fiscal year, according to the government. The situation adds an extra layer of complexity to the task facing Mr. Abe.
Japan isn’t about to run out of spare cash soon. About 1,400 trillion yen, or $11.5 trillion, of household financial assets remain tucked away. One goal of Mr. Abe’s economic program is to get this idle cash back into the hands of individuals in the form of wage increases or higher returns to investors.
But Mr. Abe’s aim is a delicate one, because the same pile of savings is supporting Japan’s huge government debt.
Naohiko Baba, the chief Japan economist at Goldman Sachs, worries what will happen if both households and companies stop saving. At the equivalent of two and a half years of economic output, Japan’s debt load is the heaviest in the world. Yet about 90 percent of the debt is held locally, meaning that Japan is, in effect, lending to itself.
Economists say that is one reason Japan has avoided the kind of bond market pressure that has sent less indebted countries like Greece into crisis.
Mr. Baba said Japan could run short of the savings it needs to fund the debt locally by about 2020. After that, it would need to turn to foreign investors – a potentially destabilizing shift.
“Once we have to rely on foreign investors to finance the debt,” he said, “that could be the beginning of a disaster for Japan.”