Tokyo — Japan's ethic for hard work is slowly but surely being eroded by a new generation. Surveys in recent months by government, semiofficial research institutes, and private industry have all carried the same warning that young Japanese are not prepared to work as hard as their parents.
The majority of the present working generation is ready to put company interest before family or personal life.
The majority of young workers, however, is already making it clear that personal happiness is more important than company loyalty and that in the years ahead there is going to be a rapidly growing and clear separation between work and leisure, compared with the past blurring of the lines.
One person who has made a long and close study of the phenomenon is Atsuko Toyama, director of intermediate education in the Education Ministry. For a time in the early 1970s Mrs. Toyama was engaged in youth studies for the prime minister's office. She continued her research and, after four years of work in her spare time, recently published a book on ''freshmen businessmen.''
The most surprising aspect, she said in an interview here, was the wide gap in perceptions of young people in the transitional period between university and workplace. The values and the behavior patterns of the two were so different that the majority of young people had difficulty in coping.
''Asked to forecast the kinds of value standards necessary in the workplace, most spoke in ideal terms of creativity and of realizing self. In practical terms, (however,) the main standards are cooperation, adaption, obedience, etc.
''By comparison, there is very little difference between the perceptions of American university students about work and the reality.''
Another point of difference: American students say they want to work in a place where they can develop and show their ability, but Japanese students prefer to work for stable enterprises offering lifetime security - what is known here as ''picking a big tree if you want shelter'' - even if it involves considerable constraints on individual ambitions.
Japanese students tend to shun companies with current uncertainty but future potential, even though these arebetter adapted to their university dreams of ''developing self.''
But the difficulty, reports Mrs. Toyama, is that ''Japanese companies, when asked what kind of students they want as workers, mention those with a lot of vitality, challenging spirit, etc. So actually what Japanese companies really want are American students.''
As to the reasons for the discontinuity between school and workplace, Mrs. Toyama says: ''Japanese universities are organized so that once youngsters have passed the entrance examination, they don't have to work hard and can still graduate. They have lots of free time and enjoy themselves. They have to get along only with their friends and peers.
''But once they start work, they are bound by a very close human relations organization with complex vertical and horizontal links. In addition, unlike the United States, it's very rare for a Japanese worker to voluntarily go back to school for more education or to seek advancement by changing jobs. So they feel very much constrained and closed in.''
How are young workers adjusting to the workplace?
Well, reports Mrs. Toyama after much study, there is an increase of youngsters willing to abide by ''work rules'' - 73 percent last year against 61 percent a decade ago. But it turns out that what she means by that is: They are willing to do what they are told to do, and not an iota more. There is little initiative.
Second, there is a growth of what are called ''happiness freaks,'' meaning people wrapped up in themselves and not worrying about anything or anyone else. Mrs. Toyama is extremely scathing of young female workers who she describes as a form of the new selfish, youth-oriented culture of Japan.
''Say they are typing a letter and have begun the word 'and,' '' she explains. ''The moment the clock reaches 5 p.m., they are out of the door, having only typed the first letter 'a'.''
In the past, the company has tried to compensate for the long hours of toil expected from the work force by creating an ''extended'' or ''substitute'' family. Great efforts have been made by managers to foster a closeness among ordinary workers unknown in most of the West. This extended beyond working hours to a virtual obligation for anyone with ambition to go out eating and drinking with one's peers and seniors night after night in the interests of promoting harmony.
But the studies of Mrs. Toyama and others show this, too, is changing. Younger workers want the leisure and they want to control what they do with this time. They appear to want a ''cooler'' rather than the former ''warm'' relationship with their bosses, moving more toward a Western pattern.
In a recent magazine article, former Education Minister Michio Nagai lamented the spread of ''me-ism,'' which he saw as the kind of permissiveness that had eroded the spirit of discipline in the US and other countries.
He expressed a fear that this attitude now sweeping through Japanese schools would soon infect the workplace, if it has not done so already.
A poll of salaried workers taken by the government last December found 46 percent saw in the job their reason for living. For up to 57 percent of those surveyed, the job was merely a means to make money. Some 24 percent wanted ''to contribute to society through work,'' while 15 percent wanted ''to cultivate personal potential.''
Even more significant as a social trend, however: Only 36 percent were prepared to sacrifice their personal lives for the company, against 57 percent unwilling to do so.
Changing attitudes are also reflected in another recent government poll, this time on attitudes toward promotion. Only an astonishingly low 10 percent said they actively sought advancement through hard work. Another 28 percent were interested in promotion only if it helped cultivate their personal potential, while 25 percent did not seek any advancement at all.
Many theories are put forward for the change in attitudes. One popular one is that today's young have never experienced the hunger that drove their fathers to work so hard, especially in the early postwar years.
Another aspect is the economic climate. This is eroding the postwar traditional system of ''a job for life'' and promotion and salary increases based on years of service, as companies now have to rationalize their costs to survive. Automation, too, has ravaged employment prospects with only four or five people needed to mind machines on assembly lines or in offices where once 100 people were needed.
The prominent daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun commented: ''. . .In this age when posts within the company do not increase and when people live to 80, it appears it will continue to become more difficult to maintain the stick-to-the-company consciousness.''
So what can be done to reverse the trend?
Atsuko Toyama believes it cannot be reversed because it is a natural progression of Japanese society to the level of the advanced countries of the West. But it can perhaps be alleviated.
Schools should do a lot more to prepare youngsters for the transition to the workplace.
''Many companies today complain that universities no longer teach basic knowledge and that new graduates don't know how to make a telephone call, write a letter, or speak properly, nor do they have the right manners and mental attitude.''
But she also believes companies will have to accept the change in values and learn to cope with it. One way of continuing the old ''family atmosphere'' in the workplace, she suggests, is to involve even the rawest recruit in the decisionmaking process. Companies should also improve educational and job-rotational possibilities for developing personal potential.
She warns managers: ''You will have to accept that eventually most younger workers, once the moment comes to go home, will do just that. Many Japanese now feel a little guilty about their desire for more leisure and personal fulfillment. . . . But I don't think that guilt will last many more years.''