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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of Japanese packed a Tokyo shrine on Tuesday, the first working day of 2011, to pray for better luck and a rebound in the lagging economy just days after ushering in the Year of the Rabbit.
By midday, some 70,000 people had visited Tokyo's Kanda Myoujin shrine, dedicated to several gods including the god of good fortune, to bow their heads and wish for a more prosperous year.
"Gloomy news is all we hear around us these days, so I wished that this year we'd get some bright and joyful news for a change," said 46-year-old Yoshiko Saeki.
Japan's economy is recovering at a sluggish pace from a deep recession. Though a government report last month showed growth of a revised 1.1 percent in July-September from the previous quarter, beating estimates, sentiment remains bleak.
Analysts polled by Reuters expect the economy to shrink 0.1 percent in the following quarter as exports slow and auto output slumps after the expiry of government incentives for the purchase of low-emission cars.
"I wished for an economic rebound from the bottom up so that my business is also positively affected," said Shinya Watanabe, a 24-year-old businessman who has been in his current job for just two years.
Watanabe is one of the lucky ones. While Japan's overall jobless rate was at 5.1 percent in November, unchanged from the previous month, one in 12 Japanese aged 15 to 24 was unemployed in the same month, according to the Internal Affairs Ministry.
"In the current situation, if young people cannot find jobs then the Japanese economy and industry will decline," said 53-year-old Sadao Hosoi, a nuclear power plant manager.
"I wish that this year, our economy and society can finally give hope to young people."
The Tokyo Stock Exchange kicked off trade with a special ceremony attended by Financial Services Minister Shozaburo Jimi, who said Japan should emulate the rabbit and hop ahead.
"This is the year we leap forward, the year we bound ahead. So let's keep jumping and jumping ahead," Jimi said before ringing the TSE opening bell.
Tuesday at least proved profitable for Japan's benchmark Nikkei, which rose 1.7 percent, powering to its highest close since mid-May 2010.
Reporting by Hyun Oh and Chris Meyers; editing by Elaine Lies