Let's Not Work Like Japanese

RICHARD REEVES

January 23, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- So the Japanese, or at least their equivalent of Tom Foley, think Americans are all lazy and unproductive. I hope they're right.

The ''charge,'' if that's what it is, came over the weekend from Yoshio Sakurauchi, speaker of the Japanese house of representatives, chiding us for not being more like the Japanese.

His arrogance might make some of us realize what we sound like when we constantly tell people in other cultures to be more like us. But who wants to live like the Japanese? All work and no play make Yoshio a very dull boy.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that John Kennedy used to tell about standing in the Massachusetts cold shaking hands with workers at a factory gate.

''I know who you are, Kennedy, and you haven't worked a day in your life,'' said one of the factory workers. ''And let me tell you something: You haven't missed a thing!''

One of the many things that have gone wrong in our currently peaceful competition with the Japanese, and other Asian economies, is the American assumption that everything would be fine if we could work harder than the Japanese or the Taiwanese for less money.

Why should we? For more than 200 years we worked more so that we, or our children, could someday work less.

We should not, I would argue, be trying to match the Asians. It is impossible, and I hope it always will be for Americans to match a certain kind of productivity rooted in Confucian beliefs and traditions. We will never have the focused and obedient discipline common in Asia.

Loyalty and freedom are bound to clash, and Americans will always choose freedom, productive or not.

What we should be trying to do is figure out how to work and live like Europeans. The French, the Germans and even the British laugh at work schedules of Americans, particularly the two-week vacation.

The Germans, as we have noticed, are formidable commercial competitors, even though German workers get six weeks vacation plus almost 20 paid holidays a year.

In European eyes it is insanity for a man and a wife to both work from dawn to dusk day after day. Is it worth that just to buy a television set for every room?

Is it worth it if we are forever absent or exhausted as our children grow up? And what does it end up costing the nation if so many children are growing up on their own?

''The Overworked American'' is the right title at the right time for a book coming out next month. The author, a Harvard professor named Juliet B. Schor, begins like this: ''In the last 20 years, the amount of time Americans have spent at their jobs has risen steadily. Each year, the change is small, amounting to about nine hours or slightly more than one additional day of work. . . . Working hours are already longer than they were 40 years ago.''

During those years American productivity doubled as leisure time declined. And many of us got caught in a credit trap, buying more and more things that we will still be paying for years from now.

Maybe we are lost souls, but we can whisper the secret we learned to our children: Take some time off; don't buy so much.

If they take that advice, they will not have to buy so many Japanese gadgets. And they won't have to live like the Japanese, either.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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