TOKYO -- In self-satisfied tones, Japanese leaders recently have been calling Americans lazy and praising their own workers' eagerness to toil and sacrifice for corporate Japan. But Takeshi Kikuchi has a different perspective.
On a routine day, Mr. Kikuchi recalled recently, he had only 2 1/2 minutes to bolt in the gasoline tank and hurriedly attach 10 other parts to each automobile moving down the Nissan assembly line. At peak times, the process was speeded up and he had to put in as many as 12 hours a day.
"We used to mutter plenty of complaints, but we knew nothing would happen," he said. "At the end of the day, I was so tired that I only felt like watching television or going to bed."
These days, despite the comments of some Japanese spokesmen, the legendary willingness of Japanese workers to toil long and hard without complaining is giving way to a new debate over whether Japanese are working too hard. Increasingly, Japanese are willing to answer yes.
Unions have begun demanding shorter hours, for instance, and workers are saying more openly that their long hours on the job have not yielded sufficient benefits or improved standards of living.
"The Japanese are clearly overworked," said Hiroyuki Kawaguchi, assistant general secretary of Rengo, the nation's largest trade union federation. "After all these years of prosperity, we are at a turning point. From now on, the system must respond to our demands for shorter hours."
His prediction may be overstated, but the downward trend in work time is clear and has been for the last few years. Many offices and factories that used to be open on Saturday have started to stay closed all weekend in the last couple of years. The average time worked by Japanese declined from 2,432 hours a year in 1960 to 2,009 last year, according to the Ministry of Labor.
The ministry has set a target of 1,800 hours next year and is pushing for legislation to achieve the goal. Few believe it can be reached, but it has become politically popular in Japan to call for everyone to stop working so hard.
"Shorter working hours and more comfortable workplaces are national goals to make our working lives less stressful," Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said in a recent speech, sounding a note that contrasted sharply with his recent comment that Americans may lack a "work ethic."
Despite the decline in work hours, Japanese still work harder than Americans. By some calculations, they work the equivalent of a month more than their American counterparts every year.
Moreover, the Labor Ministry's statistics showing that Japanese work shorter hours probably exaggerate the trend because Japanese companies routinely underreport the hours their employees work. A recent survey found that 55 percent of employees worked unpaid -- and unrecorded -- overtime.
Last month, labor inspectors raided 80 branches of 12 big financial institutions, where a third of the employees were found to have been required to put in large amounts of unpaid overtime, although overtime is by contract usually paid at 125 percent of the hourly wage.
The government reprimanded the companies but did not punish them. The companies were embarrassed nevertheless, as was Hitachi Ltd., which was sued recently by a factory worker who said he had been dismissed because he refused to work overtime.
Part of the reason the Japanese seem to work harder relates to cultural distinctions, including the fact that Japanese identify more with their companies than workers in other countries and therefore accept and enjoy a great deal of socializing connected to the office or factory.
A recent survey by the Hakuhodo Institute for Life and Living, a research institute, said Japanese are far more dedicated to their workplaces and like to spend more time there than Americans do. A majority felt that morning calisthenics on the job and singing the company song were appropriate.
Japanese white collar workers also routinely go out evenings with their bosses or colleagues. They go on weekend outings not considering that to be part of their jobs, even though their attendance is viewed as less than voluntary.
Most office workers in surveys also say that if their supervisor works late, they feel they also have to stay late, even if there is no work to do. Armies of commuters heading home late at night do so after what workers in other countries might not consider real work.
"By objective standards, it may seem crazy," said a young bureaucrat at a major Japanese ministry who usually does not get home until midnight. "The dilemma of white collar workers is that they dislike working late, but they haven't found a practical alternative."
A feature of the debate over work and its benefits has been a bitter argument in public between two respected industrial figures.
On one side is Takeshi Nagano, president of the Japan Federation of Employers Association, who is battling the labor unions' drive for shorter hours and higher wages.