For more Japanese, lifestyle comes before work

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From the driver's seat of his minivan, Tomoaki Ooka scans Japan's Pacific coast. Figuring the waves worth suiting up for, he slips into a wet suit, waxes up one of his three boards, and 10 minutes later is paddling through the surf. The previous day, a 20-foot swell pushed him under and dragged him along the seabed, prompting a trip to the doctor.

After barely half an hour, he calls it a day. "I'm normally much better," he says as he steps from the sea, disappointment in his voice. "But with this shoulder...."

Far from the madding crowds of urban Japan, there is evidence that Japanese society - mired in an economic rut for the past decade, to say nothing of its political class - is undergoing changes that are little short of radical.

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For years, reports have heralded little from Japan except gloom and doom. Most recently, its ruling coalition announced plans to add to the nation's already colossal debt (the worst per capita among industrialized nations) by pumping up to $95 billion more into the economy, emphatically priming the on-again, off-again recovery.

But here in this tiny coastal village in southern Japan, a rebellion of sorts is under way. Take Mr. Ooka, who grew up in central Tokyo, but moved to this no- where town 2-1/2 hours south of Japan's capital. Deeply tanned from eight hours a day spent most days on the beach, he lives five minutes from the sea in an area inhabited mainly by aging rice farmers but increasingly overrun by scruffy surfers. Ooka spent more than a year in a juvenile reformatory while a teenager. But after walking free three years ago, instead of trying for a spot at a university - and eventually a dawn-to-dusk job like his father - he moved to the ramshackle town of Izumicho for the surf.

Today, he is a talented amateur. Although he crashed out in the first round of the All-Japan Amateur Surfing competition earlier this summer, he recently finished 2nd and 3rd in two big competitions. Still, he's not sure whether he has what it takes to turn professional. "If the surfing doesn't work out, I'm not sure what I'll do," says Ooka, who survives by working a variety of part-time jobs, including churning out parts at a nearby factory for Japan's top carmakers. "I might try and get into university. But there's no way I'm becoming a 'salaryman.' "

Either way, Ooka and thousands of other young men and women like him are already turning Japanese society on its head. In isolation they represent little. But taken together they hint at a Japan in the midst of more fundamental changes than most outsiders appreciate, a nation in which growing numbers of people put lifestyle before work, and in which to live and die for one's company is no longer the prevailing wisdom. Even young Japanese in jobs and professions that once provided little time for leisure now find time to take to the waves, head to the mountains, scuba dive, or pursue their activity of choice.

Hiroshi Kimoto is another Izumicho regular. Unlike Ooka, however, he has a full-time job working as an interior designer in central Tokyo close to where he lives. Monday through Friday, he clocks 12-hour days refitting shops or decorating apartments in chichi neighborhoods. In exchange, he gets weekends off and, weather permitting, spends most of his free time tearing arcs through the swells where the Pacific meets the Japanese archipelago. "I'd love to give up my job, and move down here full time," Kimoto says. "I'm just not sure I could make ends meet."

In any event, Japanese work hours have been declining steadily since its vaunted bubble economy burst nearly 10 years ago. What's more, according to the most recent Japanese government statistics, factory workers here worked an average 38.8 hours a week in 1998, less than in Britain (43.7 hours), the United States (42.8 hours), France (39.6 hours) and Canada (39.2 hours).

If the latest package of government spending helps rejuvenate the economy, work hours might rise, as wages pick up following years of stagnation, and incentives to clock overtime increase.

But from the way Ooka and Kimoto wax not only their boards, but about the joy of surfing and the lives they lead, it is hard to imagine all of Japan's young wave warriors turning in their wet suits for baggy blue overalls or ill-fitting gray suits.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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