JAPAN INC. An Introduction to Japanese Economics (The Comic Book) by Shotaro Ishinomori (University of California Press: $25, cloth; $10.95, paper)

The image of Japanese students and businessmen avidly reading comic books unavoidably brings to mind Archie, Veronica and Superman, or possibly, if one has kept up with the times, the more sophisticated comic books of recent years. Even with a broadminded approach to comic book art, we think of comic books as escapist reading of the most illiterate sort; we shudder at the thought that 69% of Japanese high schoolers read comic books (compared to our 15%). "Japan Inc." should be required reading for anyone who so shudders. It is the translation of a best-selling Japanese comic book based on an introductory economics textbook. Both books (the comic and the text) were originally published by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Japanese equivalent of the "Wall Street Journal." In its first year of publication, the comic-book version sold more than half a million copies, a staggering sales figure for any book in the United States.

"Japan Inc." illustrates principles of economics through episodes in the life of a group of fellow office workers at Mitsutomo Trading Co. The five chapters are entitled Trade Friction, Countering the Rise of the Yen, Industrial Structure, Deficit Finance and A Monetary Revolution. As the economic plot line takes us into corporate boardrooms and behind the headlines, the comic-book plot merrily pits good against evil with the requisite number of "boffs" and "aarghs," with the occasional "zudo" (sound effects incorporated into the artwork having been left untranslated).

In addition to the dialogue and action, notes at the bottom of the page explain economic facts and theories. As a fight rages between an office worker and his wife, running notes calmly explain the business pressures caused by fluctuating exchange rates. "Shut up! In this world you have to change to survive," snaps Tsugawa, as the notes read, "Certain makers of electrical products calculate that it becomes cheaper to manufacture in the United States when the exchange rate falls below 170 yen to the dollar."

This is not to say that "Japan Inc." is great literature, nor even brilliant economics. The cast of characters is made up of stock personality types: Kudo is the young hero who always considers business policies in light of how they will affect the community; his rival, Tsugawa, ruthlessly pursues profit; the rest of the office staff is similarly typed. There are also guest stars, like Spiderman in our comics, who drops in to help Superman out of a tight spot. Ronald Reagan himself occasionally announces U.S. positions.

What "Japan Inc." offers is not only a revision of how we think of Japanese comic-book reading, but a way to see the Japanese the way they see themselves. Our views of Japan tend to focus on the official position: trade leaders, politicians--the front line. This volume is a good introduction to the country's economic issues as seen by the Japanese. There is clearly a strong moral position here: A good business is socially responsible and takes the long view. There is also a sort of insecurity about Japan's position in the world that one might miss in the daily newspapers. And although the characters are simplistic, details of even the most banal exchanges carry inherent interest as they offer a glimpse behind the monolithic facade. What does a young Japanese worker say--even in a comic book--when he doesn't agree with his boss? How does he feel about politicians? The respect for elders--certainly one of our unquestioned stereotypes of Asian societies--is in for a few swipes, too, when the office mates pose as siblings to inspect a home for the elderly. There's a lot between the bubbles in "Japan Inc."--and even the most serious readers will learn something of the zip of comic book reading.

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