PBS allows time for penetrating views of Japan

Japan Public Broadcasting Service, four-part series premi`ering tonight (check local listings). Narrated by Jane Seymour. How much time would a commercial TV show spend on stately scenes of Japanese figures performing ``the ancient ritual of guessing the perfume''? Or on a lesson in modern Japanese bowing (the more senior the person, the lower your bow - with sometimes a quick glance to be sure your head is lower than your superior's)?

No time at all, probably. But such delicious and unhurried moments are common in this orderly, insightful, visually beautiful look into the character of a nation many analysts say will overtake the United States and become the world's leading economic power by the end of the decade.

The production is a skillful and generally appealing example of what used be called educational TV - in the best sense of the word. It's not afraid to take its time adding fact on fact, with illustrating shots that move from temple to automated factory to home life without confusion.

A Buddhist monk, for instance, blows a horn on a hillside as we watch the ritual life of a tiny temple, while a few miles away we see robots roll around in an ultramodern camera plant and observe a worker named Tokoyo. Later she and her grandfather kneel before the family Shinto shrine - beneath a 50-year-old portrait of Emperor Hirohito - praying for a good harvest and for Tokoyo's brother to pass the college entrance examination on which so much of his very modern corporate future depends.

From such scenes emerges the premi`ere program's basic insight - one also that runs throughout the three other shows: The Japanese can change what they do without changing what they are. They can alter the basic direction of their history and still keep roots in the ancient past.

That's because their past seems magically adapted to the technological present. The strong group loyalties we see beautifully documented in Tokoyo's home and village ``are the secret,'' Miss Seymour says, ``behind Japanese industrial success. The most interesting thing about the Japanese is the speed with which they can adapt to change.''

Seymour is decidedly not there, by the way, merely as a ratings device. A program spokesman says she spent 14 days in Japan shooting sequences. Narrating with grace and intelligence, she is instructive without being patronizing. Her own mother, who is Dutch, was held in a Japanese prison camp in World War II - a fact that lends special bite, in succeeding shows, to Seymour's depiction of Japanese military expansionism.

It is a bit of a travelogue at times, with a certain sameness in some of the episodes as the series progresses through its four shows - although it's often a justified repetition of a central point threading through a rich variety of contexts. The second show (April 11), for instance, documents the samurai tradition and Japan's sometimes savage martial spirit. Seymour asks, ``What made the Japanese soldier so cruel and fanatical?'' in World War II, but she also notes, standing on a Japanese street, ``The more I am in Japan, the more I realize just how safe Japan is.''

The following week she notes, ``One of the most fascinating things about the Japanese is that they all obey the rules.'' That week's show traces why this is so - back to shoguns who established a bureaucracy 200 years before Napoleon - an all-powerful police state that told families how big a doll their kid could play with.

With at times shocking footage, the final show tries to explain (``without for one minute excusing these actions,'' Seymour assures us) what led to Japan's brutal military actions in World War II and earlier. It also deals with questions Japan still anguishes over - including its ``proper place in the world.''

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