A Tale of Two Cultures: Japanese, Americans Wonder, What's Life All About? Long Hours, high Prices, Scant Leisure are the Price of Japan's Prosperity

November 24, 1991|By JEANNETTE BELLIVEAU

There's a dark side to Japan's economic might the unhappiness many Japanese feel about their quality of life.

Take Takashi Koyama, for instance, who writes for Sankei Shimbun in Tokyo. Addressing a visiting group of Americans at the Asia Foundation in May, he pulled back the curtain to show the drawbacks to being a cog in Japan Inc.

''Figures show that the average salary is now higher in Japan than the United States,'' Mr. Koyama began. The World Bank shows 1989 per-capita incomes of $23,730 for Japan and $21,100 for the United States.

''But our houses are small, our money doesn't go far due to high prices, and our work hours are long,'' he said matter-of-factly. ''I commute three hours a day on a train, standing because I cannot find a seat. Sunday is my only day off, and I often stay home with my family, because it would cost us $80 to go visit an amusement park or go on a similar outing. So although we may appear to have a higher salary, Americans in some ways have a higher standard of living and quality of life.''

Mr. Koyama's observations were echoed by others at the Asia Foundation's round-table discussion. Mikio Haruna, deputy foreign-news editor at Kyodo News Service, has spent much of his career studying the United States, and he loved an earlier posting as a Washington correspondent. Much to his dismay, however, his employer wants to send him to Germany next, ''but I feel I can't refuse my boss,'' he said.

Technically he gets 20 days of vacation a year, but he only uses about eight of them. ''What would happen if you took all your vacation?'' he was asked. ''I'd be demoted,'' he said with a drawn smile.

''It's rule by coercion,'' said Mr. Koyama, citing peer pressure as one reason for the long hours and forfeiting of vacation time. (The Japanese work an average of 200 hours more than Americans per year, the Japanese Ministry of Labor says).

Mr. Koyama's and Mr. Haruna's words tell of a disgruntlement behind the surface glitz of Japan's multi-story malls and neon night life. This island in the Far East is DisneyWorld's Tomorrowland, except it's not a theme park, it's a whole nation. Spotless, ultramodern trains from Narita airport to downtown Tokyo update their location on an electronic wall maps. Tokyo's dazzling electronics district, Akihabara, sells the latest DAT tape recorders and tiny LCD televisions, which will arrive Stateside in a few years. Young Japanese clothes horses rival Florentines and Parisians for style as they stride in front of spectacularly stocked department stores in the Ginza, Tokyo's retail heart.

But an overvalued yen and high prices curtail purchasing power for the average Japanese, who faces $3 Coca-Colas, restaurant meals in the $40-100 range and houses often without central heating with less than half the square footage of U.S. homes.

To the awestricken American visitor, the fact that all is not perfect in this seemingly enviable techno-paradise offers some reassurance. The United States may have a whopping trade deficit, deteriorating education and a pathetic savings rate, but (relatively) we have cheap food, affordable entertainment, spacious housing and vacation days we can really take.

Conversely, America's standard of living appeals to at least some Japanese working temporarily in the United States. At MHI Corrugating Machinery Co. in Hunt Valley, a joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsui, five Japanese workers transferred to the United States for tours of three years or less are among the 35 or so workers.

''Some of the wives just love it here, especially the ones with small children,'' said Betty Goglia, office manager. ''It varies. Some of them don't want to go home, and some can't wait to.'' Workers with adolescents back home studying in Japan, may be itchy to return, but others find much to like about Maryland.

''I think the women enjoy the freedom they have here,'' said Mrs. Goglia. ''A lot of them like not being crammed in with a whole lot of other people. The wives often like it here because they don't have her whole family and neighbors breathing down their necks. It's less crowded. The men like very much not having to commute by train an hour every day. They also tell me there's less stress in their jobs here.''

Back in Japan, workers' griping at times can seem pervasive. But despite the outspokenness Japanese may display to visiting Americans, there seems to be little complaining to bosses and no concerted efforts to improve matters.

First-hand observation and opinion polls galore show there are many Mr. Koyamas. His is not an isolated case of a Japanese who returned from a stint in America (he spent time as a child and as an adult in Washington) with a critical eye.

Some highlights of opinion surveys in the past year and a half:

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