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The Pacific : Ambivalent Acolytes : Recent American graduates are living quite comfortably in Tokyo as they help sell U.S. assets to the Japanese. Some however, are having qualms about it.

<i> The Washington Post</i>

They vacation in Thailand, have suits made in Hong Kong, date Japanese women and spend hours every day on the job in Tokyo, selling America to the Japanese.

Pioneers of a new world economic order, still in their early 20s and recent graduates of the best U.S. colleges, they are the flip side of the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, and they are flocking to this new center of financial might.

While Americans at home buy Nissans and Sonys, the growing corps of “baby bankers,” in the self-mocking words of one, helps Japan channel its dollars back into U.S. skyscrapers, factories and other assets.

Several young investment bankers said in recent interviews that it is both exciting and unsettling to serve as acolytes to the new relationship.

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Their ambivalence, after watching the seemingly unstoppable Japanese economy from close range, echoed an uncertainty that many U.S. policy-makers and voters now display, alternately admiring and blaming Japan, blaming and excusing America for the growing economic imbalance.

“I do have ethical qualms,” said Dwight Poler, 23, who helps Japanese investors buy companies in the United States. “Obviously, there’s a risk of selling off all of your assets.” But Poler noted that while Americans complain about over-eager Japanese investors, his work depends on Americans as eager to sell as Japanese are to buy--and there is no shortage of such Americans.

“It’s easy to say the Japanese are awful, or they’re buying America on the cheap,” said Poler, an Amherst College graduate with the mergers and acquisitions department in Tokyo of the Morgan Stanley investment banking firm. “But when executives in the U.S. decide to sell (their companies), they come to us and say, ‘Make sure you check out the Japanese market, make sure we’re not missing out on a high price.’ ”

Staff Grows Rapidly

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According to statistics provided by Morgan Stanley Japan Ltd., the Japanese will spend about $14 billion on overseas real estate this year, up from about $1 billion in 1985. Japan’s investment in foreign mergers and acquisitions has zoomed from almost nothing four years ago to more than $12 billion last year.

In that same period, Morgan Stanley’s Tokyo office, the second-largest U.S. securities firm here, nearly quintupled its staffing. From 0.6% of worldwide company employees in 1982, the Tokyo office now accounts for 8.5% of Morgan Stanley’s total employees.

The 10 largest U.S. securities firms in Tokyo, led by Salomon Bros. Asia Ltd., employed more than 2,700 people at the end of 1988, according to Gavin Anderson & Co. A majority of those workers were Japanese, but a large minority were young Americans in Tokyo for one to three years, selling stock, trading currency or--like Poler--dealing in U.S. and European assets.

Many of Poler’s colleagues and competitors came to Japan for the money or a good time. Although they are here to tap into Japan’s astonishing new wealth, they live better than they could in New York and far better than Japanese brokers and bankers the same age. “This is the best kept secret,” said Jim Jackson, 24, a Georgetown University graduate specializing in real estate. “We live great lives.”

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Like many of their friends, Jackson and Poler came to Japan more or less by chance, without speaking Japanese, in part because their companies had trouble recruiting more senior staff from New York for Tokyo duty. “People are either married and don’t want to move their families, or they’re single and don’t want to leave the dating scene for two years,” Poler said.

Feels ‘Uncomfortable’

Once here, the recent graduates receive cost-of-living allowances that may boost their earnings close to six figures and live in central city apartments that, in Tokyo’s overheated market, cost $5,000 per month or more to rent.

Jackson said he often feels “uncomfortable” about the gap between his life style and that of his Japanese colleagues, who typically live at least an hour’s commute away in shabby matchbox apartments. “You’re aware of it at dinner,” he said. “I maybe buy one more round of beers than I would.”

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For many baby bankers, the Tokyo experience is eye-opening and sobering as well as lucrative.

Poler, a native of Grafton, Mass., with sandy brown hair and all-American Tom Sawyer looks, and his friend Benjamin Nye, also 23, a Harvard graduate with a football player’s build and a ready grin, spent hours debating the merits of their jobs and the implications for America’s future.

Often their debates took place on Sunday mornings, when they and a few friends would meet for French toast in Tokyo’s most elegant hotel before heading to church. Then, on fine mornings, they would walk slowly home to their posh Roppongi neighborhood through the Aoyama cemetery, which is one of Tokyo’s few green patches, and their debate would resume.

Poler, who spent much of the past year teaching the Japanese to play the mergers game that was, until recently, quite novel to them, said he was well aware of the debate at home about Japan’s economic power.

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“Some guy in our church at home came up to my parents and said, ‘What in God’s name are you doing, allowing your son to sell America to the Japanese?’ ” Poler said. “He was actually very distressed that I was over here.”

Need U.S. Markets

On the whole, Poler said he does not share that distress. Japanese buyers so far have pursued only friendly takeovers, he said, and--unlike many U.S. and European buyers--they usually leave management and work force intact.

“It’s in their interests to protect our interests,” Poler said. “They need our markets.”

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But Nye, who recently left Japan after 15 months, took a less sanguine view during their cemetery walks. Nye, who plans to travel and then enter business school, worked deals in aircraft financing for Paine Webber Inc., persuading Japanese companies to lend money to U.S. airlines that need new jets.

Nye said he had arrived “naive” about U.S.-Japan relations, “perfectly ready to blame Americans for making a bad product, for being lazy here.” But the longer he watched Japanese business in action, the more he came to see elements of unfairness that U.S. effort cannot overcome.

“There are two completely different systems, which is fine, until they start competing against each other,” Nye said. “They can buy us, but we can’t buy them.”

Japan’s system, Nye concluded, favors producers over consumers, long-term investment over short-term profit. Company stock is owned in huge blocks by related companies and banks, preventing unfriendly mergers and allowing firms to concentrate on gaining market share in the long run rather than improving quarterly profits.

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Poorer Life Style

“Technology, knowledge, the things that allow you to compete in the future--they look at a company as a living thing, and we look at it as an asset,” Nye said. “Maybe we’re wrong.”

But Nye said Japan’s life style seemed less enviable, much poorer than its statistical wealth. Nye said his Japanese counterparts never took vacations, although theoretically entitled to two weeks per year. “It’s a joke,” he said, “but the joke’s on them.

“You get into trouble with the locals. They can’t understand why we should be getting paid so much more for doing the same work,” Nye added. “But they don’t know what it’s like to live on the other side of the world.”

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No matter where the blame, Nye said his time in Japan has made him fear for America’s future. Overconsumption in the United States, combined with a system in Japan that discourages workers from even taking vacations, left him worried that the imbalance will only worsen, allowing Japan to acquire more U.S. assets and giving work to many more young bankers and brokers after him.

“They’re accumulating our currency while we buy and buy and buy Japanese goods,” he said. “Someday they could call us on it.”


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