Tokyo — Most Japanese prefer to keep their personal problems to themselves, presenting a stoic public face.
Rarely do they cry on the shoulder of anyone outside the immediate family. And, until recently at least, there was no one like Ann Landers or Dear Abby to turn to.
Tentatively, however, some newspapers here are developing advice columns that offer fascinating glimpses behind the shoji (paper doors and windows) into human relations in this country.
Letters to the newspapers detailing problems are referred to a group of volunteers who take turns providing answers. One newspaper calls on a lawyer, a critic, a well-known film actress, and a poet, for example.
Close study reveals the correspondents are virtually all women. In the lingering tradition of the samurai warrior, it would be considered unmanly for a Japanese male to lay bare his tender soul in public.
And, since successive generations continue to live under the same roof in many families, mother-in-law problems head the list of complaints. (This is also the No. 1 theme of soap operas, which clog every Japanese television channel for hours daily.)
One housewife, married to a twice--divorced man with two children, laments he will not let her handle the household accounts. Instead, he gives his unopened pay packet straight to his mother with whom they live.
This disgruntled housewife has a part-time job so she can pay for her children's clothes by herself. But she says she feels ''like a nobody in the family.''
Film actress Sadako Sawamura responded:
''The problem of who controls household finances has been a source of trouble between wives and mothers-in-law from way back, and you have good reason to be miserable.''
But her solution was to suggest that ''you should count yourself lucky you don't have to be worried over the thankless task of making ends meet in times of constant inflation. Instead, you have time to organize your life and become independent.''
Another woman complained her mother-in-law watched her every minute of the day, constantly following her around and telling the same old stories ad nauseum.
Miss Sawamura's analysis:
''You're trying too hard to be a perfect daughter-in-law. There is an old saying that people live to a ripe old age if they have to worry a bit.'' Therefore the younger woman should go out and leave her mother-in-law with entire domestic responsibility sometimes, and also make a few deliberate mistakes to appear more human.
A middle-aged housewife wistfully told how she had her hair done and bought a new dress for a dinner date with her businessman husband for the first time in years. Alas, the romantic, candlelight atmosphere was to no avail: He sat silently chomping his food, offering no compliments and resolutely refusing to ''court you over again.''
The sad answer was ''join the club.'' Poetess Yoko Maki advised the writer to accept the lack of marital romanticism like millions of other Japanese women, concentrating instead on her own life and leaving the workaholic boor to his grindstone.
A young woman who complained about the idleness of her older brother was sharply told she was to blame for treating him as a child.
Letter writers rarely get wholehearted sympathetic support. Mostly, they are urged to bear the situation they complain about and look for a silver lining.
A rare male who ventured into print to complain of being blackmailed after an extramarital romance was told bluntly: ''Pay up. . . . Your selfishness shows through like a watermark on a bank note.''
But such people with their private woes have few alternatives to turn to.
Unlike the United States, there is no well-developed system of clergy or professional counselors.
And in a moralistic rather than a legalistic society, there are also few lawyers - one per 9,622 persons compared to one per 515 in the US, according to Japanese statistics - and they tend to restrict themselves to trying lawsuits.
Hence, the new advice columns are appearing - even though they are sometimes less than sympathetic.