Japan's feudal attitudes struggle against need for a more global outlook

Has success spoiled the Japanese? Are they becoming too complacent, too smug? Having reached, through beaverlike diligence, a plateau of material well-being never dreamed of by their parents, do they just want to cling to what they have while making sure that their children have more?

A recent editorial in the newspaper Nihon Keizai points out that Japan's present prosperity rests on two legs: guaranteed security coming from being a member of the Western lineup (more specifically, from the US-Japan security treaty), and reliance on the developing nations for about half of all Japan's exports and imports.

The same newspaper noted that many traditional New Year's decorations and foodstuffs - bamboo-and-pine gate sentinels (plastic, alas), herring roe, shrimp , and good-luck arrows - come from South Korea, Hong Kong, Panama, and even the North Sea. (Gate sentinels are plants traditionally placed at the entrance to a house at New Year's.)

Yet Japan's own defense spending is less than 1percent of its gross national product. Its record of aid to developing countries has improved in recent years, but its level of generosity is still far from catching up, on a per capita basis , with that of much smaller nations like the Netherlands or those in Scandinavia.

Japan's exports flood the world. But the outside world perceives the Japanese market as a nearly impregnable fortress.

The perception is very unfair, trade ministry officials say, citing comparative figures on customs duties and restrictive quotas. Still, Japan imports far fewer manufactured goods, as a proportion of total imports, than do most other industrialized countries.

Meanwhile, Japanese companies spent a record 3.48 trillion yen - nearly $15 billion - on tax-deductible entertainment last year, according to National Tax Administration figures. This far surpasses Japan's current defense budget of $11 .4 billion.

Executives of these same companies lament that promising younger staff members are increasingly reluctant to take assignments overseas. They are just too comfortable at home in Japan. Or rather, they fear leaving their safe, cozy neighborhoods for the ''violent jungles'' of New York or Los Angeles. For those with school-age children, a more powerful disincentive is the devilish difficulty of reinserting pupils into the Japanese educational system after a prolonged stay abroad.

Parents who must be posted overseas often leave their offspring, particularly their sons, at home with relatives, so as not to disadvantage them for tough high school and university entrance examinations.

It occurs to relatively few parents that exposure to a different society in childhood can be ideal training for multinational interactions later. In the abstract, many Japanese recognize that such interactions are a necessary condition for national survival. But when it comes to concrete cases, the obstacles remain formidable.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has put forward a bold proposal that children be taught English from primary school ''because by the mid-21st century , when they are my age, they will be living in an international society.'' The reality today is that the English taught in high school and college barely enables students to hail a waiter or a cab.

''I ordered vanilla ice cream and got a banana,'' ruefully recalled a Japanese just returned from abroad. (The misunderstanding apparently was due to the typical difficulty of pronouncing v's and l's correctly.)

During his first year as premier, Mr. Nakasone has given Japan much higher international visibility than before. At home, he preaches the need for his countrymen to become more globally-minded. It has been an uphill struggle. While Mr. Nakasone's election disaster in December may be ascribed to other causes, his emphasis on Japan's international responsibilities won few votes.

Still, he persists. At his New Year press conference he repeated his campaign assertion that he was determined to reverse the international perception of Japan as ''unfair.''

During the 200-year period of feudal isolation preceding Japan's mid-19th century opening to the West, any Japanese caught trying to smuggle himself abroad was executed. So was any Japanese who returned secretly from exotic foreign lands.

Today, this correspondent has found Japanese studying Hebrew in Jerusalem and Icelandic in Reykjavik. But mental attitudes dating from feudal times have not been entirely overcome. In some cases, they may even have been strengthened by Japan's overwhelming economic success.

Many Japanese tourists returning from overseas are often convinced that their society functions like clockwork while every other has a screw loose somewhere. If they want reassurance, they have only to turn to such books as ''Japan as No. 1'' by Harvard professor Ezra Vogel.

There may well be no short-range remedy for this kind of tunnel vision, which after all is not unique to Japan. Mr. Nakasone may be right to be talking of the mid-21st century as the time when his efforts to spur a more international-minded Japan will come to full fruition.

But small signs of progress may be seen even today. This correspondent has come across Japanese youth volunteers in places like Sabah, Malaysia, teaching rice-farming and motivated, as one of them said, by the thought that ''I would like to pass on, to people less fortunate than me, some of the skills I learned from my teachers and forebears.''

Or, as a midwife training to work in a developing country told a Japanese newspaper, ''I'd just like to share weal and woe with people born into poverty.''

Spontaneous generosity is not contrary to the Japanese character. These islanders' hopes for the 21st century rest on the dawning perception that intelligent generosity is a necessary condition, not only for prosperity, but also for sheer survival in an interdependent world.

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