`Dream machine'. The author of `Future Shock' looks at how Japan prepares for `a radically changed future'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a 400-year-old hamlet surrounded by cedar trees stands a large, thatched-roof hut. Near it, rough-hewn wooden stalls line the village street. A strange, yellow-robed creature with a featureless mask for a face approaches passers-by, poking an odd, pencil-thin device at them. I push aside the coarse fabric entry mats to enter the hut, and strange sounds seem to emanate from them. Inside, bizarre things are happening. Books on a shelf lean over and then right themselves for no apparent reason. The pieces on a Japanese chessboard move by themselves. I am in a medieval ``goblin village'' - surrounded by a crowd of distinctly nonmedieval Japanese children and their parents.

The sounds I hear on entering the hut are not a product of my imagination. For the swinging fabric mats I push aside are, in fact, electronic loudspeakers, samples of the most advanced audio technology. And the pencil-like device wielded by the spooky, yellow-robed creature is a tiny TV camera. It is, even as I watch, transmitting images to a remote television monitor.

Youngsters sitting in each of the stalls lining the village street are happily playing with the technologies of tomorrow - video-response systems, voice-mail machines, color picture-phones, satellite cameras, supermagnets, advanced PBX devices (for business telephone exchanges), telephones that transmit handwritten messages, etc. - all in an authentically re-created medieval village, complete with ``ghosts'' and ``goblins'' and mysteriously moving objects.

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This is Nippon Telephone & Telegraph's exhibit in the giant, $100 million ``dream machine'' carnival - a Mardi Gras with technology - conceived by the Fuji Sankei Communication Group and mounted simultaneously in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. It is opening day last July and I, along with Yoko Ono and other celebrities, am here to help inaugurate the show. Already 1.5 million tickets have been sold. (By closing day at the end of August, 5.5 million tickets will have been sold.)

High-definition television, 3-D visuals, and banks of PCs (personal computers) compete for attention with booths selling carnival tack, T-shirts, and the like. Children are everywhere - and not just Japanese. There are a scattering of French, German, and Indian children, and a contingent of blonds, blacks, and other American youngsters from a nearby US Air Force base.

The climax of the opening ceremony - after appearances by comedians and big-screen shots of helicopters circling the pavilions, after parades, balloons, and all sorts of music, from Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy'' to ``Wish Upon a Star'' - comes when four children mount the stage. An American nine-year-old declaims, ``Give me love!'' A French child says, ``Give me happiness!'' A German child says, ``Give me peace!'' And a Japanese child sums it up with ``Give me a beautiful 21st century!''

To top it off, their voices are instantly transmitted to the United States, up-linked via satellite, bounced off the moon, and sent back to Japan, as appropriate music booms from the speakers and pictures of the moon's surface appear on the big screen in front of the crowd.

In this way - combining high-tech with allusions to history, education with show biz, a touch of religion with plenty of commercial glitz - Japan's private sector, without government funds, helps prepare young people for a radically changed future.

THE rest of the world has attributed Japan's astonishing economic success to everything from superior management to stolen technology, from unfair competition to low defense budgets. Overlooked in all this analysis is Japan's longstanding cultural infatuation with the future.

This is a country in which every day's press and television hammer home the message that the economy must be restructured, that smokestacks are obsolete, and that Japan must change to accommodate new realities. Bookstores are crammed with books about the future of everything from transport and health to biotechnology and robotics.

To hasten the arrival of the future - and to help Japan get there first - a new medium of communication has been launched by Nikkei, the Japanese combination of the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones News Service. Aimed at new-product developers, marketers, fashion designers, and others in business who operate at the edge of change, it is called ``Image Climate Forecast,'' and is a truly creative innovation in publishing.

For the equivalent of $633 a year, subscribers get a monthly magazine about what is ``hot'' in housing, design, fashion, the performing arts, the visual arts, and new products. They also receive a quarterly with longer articles. So far, nothing special.

OVER the course of a year, however, subscribers receive 1,000 four-color cards illustrating the latest fashions, designs, products, architecture, and artistic and entertainment events. Each article in the print media is accompanied by a list of the key words under which that article will be filed in the computerized data base that Nikkei is preparing out of this material. Moreover, researchers are working on a system that will permit each of the four-color images to be computerized for easy, instant retrieval according to complex combinations of criteria. It will be, in effect, a visual data base of the new for young designers, artists, advertisers, marketers, and architects.

``Image Climate Forecast'' is a print medium simultaneously becoming electronic, and it is aimed at keeping business ahead of fast-changing consumer and cultural shifts.

Japan's cultural receptiveness to the future, so starkly in contrast with attitudes in the United States and Europe, is not all commercial - nor is it all naively optimistic.

A young art critic, Junji Itoh, and two American friends, photographer Julie O'Connor and writer Dan Burstein, in Japan to research a book about Japanese finance, were kind enough to take me to a packed multimedia event - a vividly choreographed piece of ``performance art,'' brilliantly danced as well. Set on a holocaustic, moonscape set, it was entitled ``Natura Morte,'' a play on the ideas of still life and dead nature.

One has the impression that Tokyo is bursting, not merely with money but with long-repressed cultural energies likely to burst before long on the shores of the West, after half a century during which the flow went the other way.

As trade frictions grow, and an ugly, dangerous nationalism begins to rear up on both sides of the Pacific, as politicians dither in Washington, Brussels, and Tokyo, one wonders how younger Japanese, who never experienced World War II and its aftermath, are reacting.

To find out, I spent several hours with 10 students from Sophia and Waseda Universities, brought to my hotel room by a well-known TV commentator, writer, and cultural anthropologist, Masao Kunihiro.

These were thoughtful, sweet, and articulate young people, worried about the deterioration of relationships between Japan and the United States. There is a darkening cloud here - demands for bigger military budgets, nasty American-bashing (the exact obverse of Japan-bashing in the US), anxiety over the meaning of national power. For those familiar with the history of the trade conflicts in the 1930s, and the Pacific war to which they led, the headlines bring frequent shocks of recognition. Many people say they are frightened by the parallels with the past.

Japan-watchers, including many Japanese, worry that the new generation, having never experienced war and its aftermath, might be sucked into nationalist schemes.

These students, born in the 1960s, voice quite different attitudes. International-minded, consciously opposed to the festering nationalism, they have much to say that is worth pondering by their elders.

Here the talk is less about automobile or computer chip quotas, and more about morality, feelings, ``the system,'' and the differences between Japan and America.

Asking them what they like most and least about the US, I got swift, articulate, often eloquent replies.

They hate what they regard as America's crass commercialism. Those who had spent time studying in the US found the Yankee rush for ``success'' ugly and life-deforming. Said one:

``Everyone there wants to be rich and famous ... rich and famous ... rich and famous.''

What did they like best? America's openness, frankness, and generosity were cited. But the key was something else.

``In America you can dream,'' said a 20-year-old unselfconsciously. ``You can be anything you choose.'' That was the best thing about America. Heads nodded.

AND what about Japan, now suddenly so rich, so bursting with possibility? ``No, here you can't dream,'' they said. ``There are no legal restrictions to prevent you from being or becoming anything you like.'' But the power of tradition, the cultural pressures for conformity, were so strong as to prelimit or even preclude dreams, these young people insisted.

America, not Japan, was the real ``dream machine.''

Weren't Japanese young people growing more individualistic? Weren't Japanese institutions loosening up, becoming less conformist? In short, wasn't Japan changing? I asked.

``We are changing,'' came the revealing reply. ``We are different inside. The system is not.''

As Japan sets about preparing the young generation for the future, I do not think the old men who still run the government, the giant bureaucracies, the world-famous companies, those old lions who sit in the Diet or in Keidanren, the employers' association, in MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry), and the Ministry of Finance, understand quite how wide a chasm separates their image of the future from that of their grandchildren.

Do these elderly men who built Japan's postwar smokestacks - and, in turn, were formed by the basic industries and bureaucracies they built - sense the widening cleavage between what Japanese young people feel ``inside'' and what the old system still demands ``outside''?

Japan's old guard - joylessly obsessed with exports, market shares, budgets, and trade wars, always emphasizing duty while subtly derogating leisure and pleasure, made nervous by creativity and individuality, scornful of small enterprise, hostile or indifferent to environmentalism and women's concerns - is increasingly alienated from a rising generation that it refers to as a ``new species.''

By contrast, it is the younger entrepreneurs soon to take leadership in Keidanren and the government, it is Japan's leaders in the arts, the news media, communications, and the services - the rising post-industrial leadership - who speak to the young of a new, more joyful way of life in the future as the smokestacks sink into the earth.

Japan is preparing its young for the future. But it may not be the future its fast-aging leaders have in mind.

A frequent visitor to Japan, Alvin Toffler is the author of ``Future Shock,'' ``The Third Wave,'' and other works published in some 30 languages.

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