Lonely Japanese wives, high-tech kids, and the future of civilizations

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TWO newspaper clippings sit side-by-side on my desk. The first (from The Wall Street Journal) describes lonely women in a Tokyo research project. Wives of workaholic Japanese business executives candidly criticize the life style forced on many families as a price of Japan's economic miracle. One of these upscale housewives says bluntly that she is pleased her sons don't want to follow in the path of their father, a top Tokyo bank executive. Close your eyes and you can imagine a British Empire administrator's wife, a Roman proconsul's spouse, or a New York investment banker's junk-bond widow echoing the sentiment.

The second clip (from this newspaper) graphically describes the rapt reaction of Japanese children to what is described as a ``Mardi Gras with technology'' - a carnival/theme park that playfully but seriously transports them to the future frontiers of sci-tech.

Both scenes represent valid research into Japanese society's driving style. Japan Inc. is several laps ahead of the pack in the global economic road race, but is beginning to drive with one foot on the accelerator, the other tapping the brake.

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Japan is still prepping for an even more highly educated, next-chapter-high-tech leadership of the world. But it is also pausing to take stock, to indulge in the fruits of hard work - better housing, more imports, more use of its own gadgets.

And South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and others are jostling in line to do the same. Even Burma, Vietnam, and North Korea, far back in the Asian queue, are showing signs of glancing over their self-imposed walls at action elsewhere.

The systems of the Japanese workplace have been studied in America and Europe more closely than the mating dance of the lyre bird. The contradictory forces within the Japanese family have been less analyzed abroad, as that consensus-run nation tries to stay atop the greasy pole of world leadership.

For the record, the wives mentioned above spoke out in a standard research session commissioned by the Journal in Tokyo. The children were observed by that careful and perceptive futurist, Alvin Toffler. Why should Americans, Europeans, Russians, Chinese, or Nigerians be interested in the attitudes of wealthy Tokyo housewives and Tokyo and Osaka children? Because those attitudes remind us of factors that contribute to the rise and slowing of civilizations. Taken alongside such other telltale signs as Korean political and labor unrest, they are reassuring - but certainly not complacency-breeding - signs. They hint that world competition never crosses a finish line, that human nature has not been repealed, and that we can learn much about work and reward from each other. We can, in fact, learn at a faster pace than was dreamed of in Marco Polo's philosophy, thanks to insta-communications.

But back to Japan.

Experts and casual visitors alike have tut-tutted about the subservient role of Japanese women. Despite my admiration for Japan's immense cooperative achievements, I am stunned when I think back to a 4 a.m. visit to the Tokyo fish market. Our guide was a bright law professor. She had spent hours the previous night boning up on English names for every conceivable form of marine life. She was meticulous, hard-working, talented - and professionally downgraded. She was a Tokyo University-Yale University law graduate. In America she would have been a shoo-in for a high-salaried job in a top law firm. But she had made the mistake of graduating second in her class. So she was teaching, not practicing, law alongside males who had graduated lower.

That was seven years ago. At the time the unspoken (perhaps even unthought) national attitude about women's place seemed to be: Japanese society works so well, has progressed so rapidly; why tinker with success?

But societal success soon moves beyond favoring the status quo. Japanese women, who had long played hidden roles of authority in some spheres, began to assume more public ones in others. They pressed for political solutions to pollution problems. Like their sisters in America, they went to work in increasing numbers. In 1984, the number of women working (15.18 million) exceeded the number keeping house for the first time.

I'm reminded poignantly of hearing one of the last of Japan's geishas (stylized entertainers) lament that she had seen Mrs. Gandhi and Mrs. Thatcher on television and hoped that her younger sister might learn a more useful career than geisha.

That brings us to the lament of those executives' wives. It's risky to generalize about complex civilizations. But it seems safe to forecast that the attitude of those wives toward their children's careers will add to the educational impact of creative experiences like the high-tech Mardi Gras described by Alvin Toffler.

The Japanese Establishment is very conscious that its economic miracle has been borne on, and born from, an education system that produces tens of thousands of superior engineers and administrators. It is equally conscious that that school system needs to produce more creative pure scientists and scholars. Hence the Mardi Gras high-tech village to stimulate a new generation of candidates from which to select.

North America, Europe, and other societies can learn from such imaginative approaches. They need even more than Japan a generation of kids who think science and engineering (as well as history and logical thinking) are fun - and worth hard work. Japan, in turn, can learn more from the Europeans and Americans who climbed the slippery pole earlier - about what do do after arrival. That's what the executives' wives are pleading.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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