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Japan Showing New Signs of Economic Improvement - 2004-04-02

There are further signs of economic improvement in Japan, as the new fiscal year begins. Meanwhile, competition heats up in the skies above Japan.

A quarterly survey released by the Bank of Japan shows corporate sentiment improving in all sectors for the first three months of 2004. This is another sign that the recovery is spreading to all sectors of the Japanese economy.

For the just-ended fiscal year, Japan's Nikkei index surged 47 percent, its biggest annual gain in more than 30 years. Goldman Sachs chief Japan strategist Kathy Matsui is optimistic that the stock market's rise is more than just a temporary rally.

"Japan is finally out of the woods with respect to its structural problems," she said. "The Japanese stock market recovery may not just be a bear market rally, but may be something more genuine and more sustainable going forward."

But economists warn the surging yen - now approaching 100 to the dollar and hitting highs not seen in four years - could cloud the corporate earnings outlook for exporters.

However, a strong yen is good news for some businesses, such as airlines, as more Japanese flock overseas looking for bargains.

Competition is increasing between Japan's two main airlines, which are both beginning service upgrades this month.

Japan Airlines marketing chief Kunio Hirata says the flagship carrier is still dominant on international routes, but needs to catch up to All Nippon Airways domestically.

ANA, meanwhile, says the goal in the next fiscal year is attracting more frequent flyers.

ANA marketing director Akio Uchida says ANA, the country's No. 2 airline behind JAL, is determined to maintain its domestic dominance. Mitsubishi Motors is denying press reports it will halt production in the United States, but says it is considering pulling out of Australia.

Facing huge losses from loan problems at its North American finance unit, Mitsubishi is saying it will restructure on April 30. The company says it wants state-backed loans of about $1 billion to finalize a rescue package.