Has modern Japan sacrificed too many age-old traditions in its modern drive for productivity? In recent years, the news media have inundated us with tales of the superiority of the Japan labor system, whereby workers exchange total productivity for total paternalism from their employer. To an America unnerved by recession, inflation, and unemployment, these stories of an Oriental workers' Utopia have been extraordinarily enticing - so much so that some labor unions have been talking with employers about the possibility of instituting similar worker-management plans.
Well, perhaps we'd better hold off a bit. ''ABC Closeup: Japan - Myths Behind the Miracles'' (Thursday, Dec. 31, 10-11 p.m.) insists that ''in the rush to praise, much has been overlooked. According to this incisively fascinating report, produced, directed and co-written by Malcolm Clarke under the aegis of innovative ''Closeup'' executive producer Pamela Hill, ''Myths Behind the Miracles'' may finally lay the ghost of the alleged near-perfect economic and social success of postwar Japan.
According to ABC's chief Asia correspondent, Jim Laurie, ''Beyond the Western frills and fads of Japan's youth . . . (is) a troubled generation under extreme pressure to succeed.'' He says that pressure starts at the very beginning of schooling, all of which is extremely competetive, and contributes to the highest rate in the world of teen-age suicide.
In addition, only about one-third of Japan's workers are fortunate enough to be employed by the large companies which provide ''birth-to-burial'' benefits. Around two-thirds of the workers are provided with no benefits, no security, no profit sharing. Women have very few rights and, on the whole, are still regarded as keepers of the home. While the nuclear family still seems to thrive, the extended family is disappearing, and many old people are relegated to such a lonely existence that life-size child-dolls are sold to them by the millions and treated by many of them almost as the real thing.
There is growing evidence of violence, alcoholism, motorcycle gangs, skid rows - all the problems we somehow suspect are unique to Western societies.
The Emperor figure, which used to dominate Japanese society and make it cohesive, has been replaced by the Industrial Giant figure - and that seems to have resulted in a great spiritual loss for modern Japan, a repression of creativity and individuality.
Says famed Japan expert Donald Ritchie, who has lived there for 35 years: ''They have put the making of money or the making of products as paramount over all the other values that they may have once had. And they've made a brilliant success of this decision. But I think they've paid a pretty heavy price for this. I think they have been cheated.''
Says Mr. Laurie in conclusion: ''Traditions have been retained or discarded on the basis of whether they could contribute to the national endeavor. Despite all the accolades of recent years, we found Japan to be like most countries - a nation still searching, both for economic prowess and social maturity. In short, a nation in search of balance.''
Skillfully photographed in Japan, using many Japanese to express their own authentic, if not always typical, points of view, ''Japan'' proves to be stimulating, thought-provoking viewing, a program essential for those searching for their own balanced opinion.
Only one thing remains unasked and therefore unanswered: ''How much is the US to blame for this post-World War II switch in ideals, morals, values?