No More 'Catching Up' : Riches Give Japan New Confidence

Times Staff Writer

When Takashi Watarai was a student at Nihon University two decades ago, there were days when he didn't have enough money to buy a 20-cent bowl of noodles for lunch. And he still remembers an ill-fitting shirt he received as a gift from a friend.

"The sleeves were too long, but I pulled them up at the shoulders and wore it anyway," he said.

The third child of a bankrupt soy sauce maker, Watarai was fortunate to be in college at all, for only 8.2% of Japan's college-age youths attended a university then.

Those days of poverty ended for Watarai in 1965, when he quit his first job and joined four friends in establishing a market research company. It was about the same time that the economic status of most other Japanese began to improve substantially, too.

Not Even a Bath

Unlike most Americans, the average Japanese family in the early 1960s not only did without a car, a telephone, a refrigerator and a stove but did not even have a bath to call its own. When Watarai, now 45, took his first job, more than half of Tokyo's population was forced to go to public baths.

The onrush of affluence that has hit Japan since then has brought vast material changes for the Japanese, has transformed once-rare luxuries into commonplace necessities and has had a profound psychological impact as well.

Today, Tokyo Survey Research Corp., the company established by Watarai and his four partners, operates seven subsidiaries, employs 205 full-time staff members and 5,200 part-time survey interviewers and last year registered sales of $10 million.

New Set of Worries

Watarai obviously no longer worries about how to pay for his next meal. What he is concerned about is whether his firm will be able, in the next 10 years, to do 20 times as much business with only three times as many employees.

"Any goal lower than that," he says, "would hardly be worth working for."

Watarai's attitude and ambition have parallels throughout Japanese society. The average Japanese earned $15,000 last year, 13 times the average wage of 1960. Japan's gross national product--the sum of all goods and services--has increased 18-fold over the same period, to $1.2 trillion.

The accomplishment of so much in so little time has spawned a new confidence that Japan can find its own way into the future or, at the least, continue to rank among the most dynamic nations. Catching up is no longer the name of the game.

Only in car ownership (about 65% of Japanese families now own a car) and size of housing units (927 square feet of floor space) does Japan rank noticeably below the United States. A college graduate today still has to spend half of his starting salary of $550 a month to rent an apartment in Tokyo--but the apartment will be twice the size of the standard one-room affair of 1960, and it will have a bath.

American cosmetics, Swedish furniture, French perfumes and designer fashions from around the world are available in Japanese shops. But as for the necessities of life, the belief that Japan already makes virtually everything it needs--and does it better and more cheaply than anybody else--has emerged among business leaders, government bureaucrats and the general public.

Self-Confidence, Pride

Some Japanese critics, among them Yukio Matsuyama, the head of the editorial board of the Asahi newspaper, regard this attitude as "arrogance," although others say it reflects only justifiable self-confidence and pride.

Today, it is hard to find anyone outside the nation's two leftist opposition parties, the Marxist-imbued Socialist Party and the Japan Communist Party, who worries about Japan's reverting to the authoritarian style of government and militarism that precipitated its disastrous defeat in World War II.

And while mention of "nationalism" still strikes a sour note in some circles, there is hardly anyone these days who isn't proud to be a Japanese.

Tetsuya Chikushi, chief editor of the Asahi Journal magazine, said recently that his readers often complain when the magazine prints articles critical about Japan. He called it a "nationalistic reaction" and said it is strongest among leftist readers.

Pride in Tradition

It wasn't that way at all in the early 1960s, when pride in Japan and its traditions was commonly equated with discredited militarism. Abject humility and national self-deprecation were standard then.

Other psychological changes are also apparent.

Affluence has brought a civility to public manners that the constraints of poverty did not allow. In 1960, large groups of Japanese resembled mobs. Only by battling one's way through a crowd, for example, did anyone manage to get to a ticket window to buy a ticket for a commuter railway or subway. Now, with an ample supply of ticket vending machines, Japanese politely wait in lines of manageable length.

Tokyo, in the early 1960s one of the filthiest cities in the world, today is rated as one of the cleanest. The change came mainly from the provision of such elemental public facilities as ashtrays, waste baskets and toilets, which formerly were non-existent.

Cattle-Like Chaos

Driving manners and pedestrian discipline improved dramatically after lane stripes were painted in the roadways and city roads were fenced off to provide sidewalks. Drivers now stay in their own lanes, forgoing the cattle-like chaos of the past. Pedestrians no longer stroll in roadways, expecting cars to get out of the way.

Some Japanese, their homes filled with gadgets and few material needs still to be fulfilled, are beginning to lament the loss of spiritual values, a loss they say has come with affluence. Juvenile delinquency, although negligible by American standards, is on the rise, and incidents of violence in classrooms have led to the inauguration of education reforms.

"Progress has been achieved only in the materialistic sphere, while the spiritual sphere of the nation . . . has fallen behind," former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, 80, has complained. "Apathy, irresponsibility and the principle of living only for the pleasure of the moment have emerged. . . . People have come to think of only themselves."

Fewer Shoes Repaired

Extravagance, too, has become a way of life, some say.

Putting new soles and heels on old shoes has fallen out of fashion, for example. Only about half of the Japanese who regularly had their shoes repaired in the early 1960s bother to do so now, according to the Japan Shoe Commerce Newspaper.

One weekly magazine reported that when a primary schoolteacher scolded a pupil for wearing dirty athletic shoes, the pupil appeared the following day in a brand-new pair.

"I threw them away. You said my shoes were dirty, and I told my mother. So she bought me a new pair," the pupil told the teacher.

Japanese businessmen who once pressed their suits under their mattresses and transferred from bus to subway to train rather than take a taxi have given up such economies. Now, they are more likely to spend huge sums to equip themselves with the best and most expensive golf equipment available; one in every four employed workers today owns a set of golf clubs.

Less Home Cooking

The new Japan can be seen even in the kitchen. Increasing numbers of young housewives can cook nothing beyond the most rudimentary dishes, so companies have sprung up around the country to home-deliver food for the family table along with instructions on how to prepare it. Shops offering prepared food now number more than 10,000, with sales of more than $1.2 billion a year.

Better educated today, on the average, than Americans, most Japanese are less willing to do the dirty jobs of society. Maids have all but disappeared. The quality of service has deteriorated noticeably in many instances, and it often costs more to get something fixed than to replace it.

Today, nearly a quarter of college-age Japanese attend college--three times the number of the early 1960s, and about the same as in the United States. Ninety percent of Japan's young people have a high school diploma, compared to 75% of young Americans. In 1960, schooling for 42% of the Japanese ended with junior high school.

'Right to Sunshine'

With affluence, even the nature of public protests has changed--from the political to the economic. Rights for which the Japanese didn't even have a word two decades ago--such as "the right to sunshine," the right to have light unobstructed by a neighboring building--are regularly demanded. The great economic development projects that were so recently sources of national inspiration, such as Bullet Line railways and petrochemical complexes, have become sources of conflict.

Television, now available everywhere, has spurred a move away from traditional written culture, and many teen-agers and adults alike today read not the Japanese classics but comic books, many with pornographic themes. As in the United States, teachers and employers complain that young people can no longer "spell"--which, in Japan, means they cannot properly write the traditional Chinese characters.

Saving 20% of Income

The Japanese propensity to save as much as 20% of disposable income continues, despite affluence, mainly because a new spur to savings has replaced the old one.

Formerly, the lack of welfare and pension programs was the primary incentive to save. But a dramatic expansion of health insurance, social security and corporate pensions has virtually eliminated the need to save for medical care or old age.

The expansion of medical care also has helped give Japan the longest life expectancies of any country in the world--79.8 years for women, 74.2 for men. Spending for a nationwide health insurance system, which was introduced in 1961, has risen from $1.4 billion in the first year to an expected $62.9 billion in 1985.

Last year, for the first time, a typical retired couple received more in social security payments than from their own sources of income, thanks to a national pension system also begun in 1961.

Soaring Price of Land

Today, the main spur to savings is the skyrocketing price of land and housing. The spiral itself is another byproduct of affluence. The average Tokyoite who wants to buy a home with a small garden now has to wait until he is nearly 41 years old to afford such a place--and to look for it as far away as 76 minutes' commuting distance from his workplace. The likely cost: $140,000, or 5.2 years' wages.

The Japanese propensity to work long hours has slackened. The Japanese workweek has dipped from 48 hours to 41 hours, on average. But only a fourth of the people who work get two days off every week of the year.

Workers still forgo 40% of the vacation days to which they are entitled and willingly put in overtime--paid at only 1.25 times normal pay, compared to the time and a half commonly available in the United States. But Japanese today cite the South Koreans, with their 66-hour workweeks, as the world's real workaholics.

Women Free to Work

Household conveniences, combined with an ever-decreasing birthrate, have given housewives new freedom to work. Married women working outside a family business accounted for only 40% of the female work force in the early 1960s, compared to 65% today.

Since 1960, the number of married women at work also has risen by 71% to more than 15.3 million and last year, for the first time, surpassed the number of housewives.

More personal time also has led to a boom in a variety of businesses lumped into what has become known as the "leisure industry." Although Japanese rank among the world's greatest overseas travelers today, foreign travel was forbidden until 1964, when 128,000 went abroad. Last year, more than 4 million Japanese made overseas trips, 83% of them for leisure.

Yet it has been only in the last two or three years that ordinary Japanese have come to accept the fact that affluence has arrived.

'Luxury of Daily Life'

"When I go to Tokyo, normally once a year, I am staggered by the luxury of daily life there," Fumiko Mori, a Japanese author, recently told a symposium in Washington, where she now lives.

One reason is that corporate profitability and national strength came to Japan long before personal affluence--as a matter of policy. Another is that many Japanese still look upon their affluence as if it were ephemeral and might disappear overnight.

Nearly two-thirds of the homes built in Japan in 1983 were constructed of wood, for example, rather than more permanent steel and concrete. Traditionally, Japanese have never expected houses to last much longer than 20 years because of the threat of typhoons and earthquakes. Even today, they see no reason to spend heavily on them.

That sense that much in life is fleeting is part of the Japanese character. A s an old proverb advises, "Tsuki ni murakumo, Hana ni kaze" (For every moon, a bank of clouds; for every flower, the wind).

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