Tending the economic garden

IF economies were gardens, America's would be full of riotously colorful wildflowers but in need of some hedge trimming. Japan's would look meticulously pruned but to Western eyes somewhat contrived. A Japanese with a venerable old plum tree in his garden will prop up its branches with crutchlike wooden supports, and wrap its trunk in straw to protect it from the rigors of winter, so that a branch or two, at least, may leaf out in the spring.

The Japanese have similarly gone to great lengths to maintain a number of economic traditions, albeit at what would appear to some as unacceptably high prices. These traditions include lifetime employment; the labor-intensive distribution system, which holds down unemployment but has kept prices high; the high food prices to maintain self-sufficiency in food; and the exclusion of women from full participation in the workplace.

These traditions are changing, however. The corporate egalitarianism of the immediate postwar period is breaking down. Lifetime employment is no longer a sure thing as companies ship their manufacturing to lower-labor-cost countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. (Government officials then cite the importation of products from those Japanese-owned factories abroad as evidence that Japan's trade surpluses are being whittled down.)

The best and the brightest of young Japanese are thinking more than ever before of going into business for themselves, or starting out with a smaller firm rather than one of the corporate conglomerates. And Japanese women, particularly - conspicuous by their absence from professional positions in Japanese corporations - are being wooed by Japan-based American companies, who see them as an underutilized resource and prize their language skills.

Japanese traveling abroad come back shocked at how poorly their standards of living compare with those of other, nominally less affluent countries, and how high domestic prices of their own Japanese goods are compared with what those goods sell for abroad.

As a result, some Western observers profess to see signs of a nascent consumer movement in Japan. The so-called NIC stores, which sell inexpensive products from the newly industrialized countries, have been a big hit, and American-style convenience stores are beginning to catch on. The Japanese remain tough customers to satisfy inexpensively, though. They have notably fussy tastes and insist on only the straightest cucumbers and the reddest apples - never mind that a bent cuke tastes no different from a straight one and a somewhat mottled apple may have an even better flavor than its perhaps more visually appealing counterpart.

Second in a series.

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