Sound familiar? Japanese want bureaucrats off their backs

For sale: one potentially bankrupt national railway network.

Assets: two solidly profitable 140 mile-an-hour ''bullet train'' lines. Liabilities: the rest of the network of lossmaking lines, accumulated debts of $ 57 billion, and outstanding loans of $100 billion.

Interested parties should apply to Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, Tokyo.

Sale of the Japan National Railways (JNR) is part of a ''shock treatment'' plan for cutting government spending that will land on Mr. Suzuki's desk before the end of July.

It is the result of a 17-month study by a panel of respected senior businessmen, led by Toshiwo Doko, known as the ''prime minister of the business world,'' examining ways to get Japan back to small government.

There is a pressing need to cut a bloated government payroll and eliminate waste, which has led to chronic annual budget deficits of many billions of dollars being papered over with fresh issues of government bonds.

The Doko Commission looks with horror at the heavy nationalization of business in Britain and socialist France, and sees it as a guaranteed recipe for economic decline.

Being closely watched with considerable sympathetic understanding is President Reagan's own campaign to reduce government and introduce more efficient business methods to the day-to-day running of the country.

The businessmen look with nostalgia to the 1950s and '60s, when the foundations of Japan's economic strength were laid.

According to their analysis, this was possibly because entrepreneurs were given their head to go about making money with minimal government interference.

As the economy has expanded and become more complicated, however, the size of the government has grown apace.

Turning over the national railways, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (NTT), and the tobacco and salt monopoly to the private sector is recommended as a vital first step in the reversal process.

The JNR, which as a private company would have been declared bankrupt years ago with an accumulated debt of more than $25.5 billion, has become symbolic of government waste and ineptitude. The country's many private railways, by comparison, are doing well and charging much lower fares.

The Doko Commission is recommending that it be split up within the next five years into semi-government special corporations based on different regions, with stock held by the central and local governments and interested private parties, as a first step to total private ownership.

It would be declared officially bankrupt to wipe out its horrendous accumulated debt, and a government commission appointed as receiver to salvage the parts of the network considered worth retaining.

Like the United States, rail's best days in Japan are probably over. Many unprofitable rural lines - especially those built at the behest of politicians to enhance their local image - would probably be the first to be scrapped.

The other two public corporations - NTT and the tobacco and salt monopoly - would also be split up and gradually become private in the same way as the JNR.

Theoretically, this could help the United States, which regarded telecommunications and tobacco as vital areas for greater penetration of the Japanese market to cut a massive trade deficit.

At this stage, no one is prepared to predict how much of the Doko plan the prime minister will be able to implement.

There is already fierce opposition from bureaucrats and politicians who fear loss of influence. Tobacco farmers, whose production costs are more than three times American levels, are also naturally among those opposed, as are the public service unions facing a reduction of membership and power.

But, a member of the Doko Commission argues: ''We have at least shown the direction in which Japan has to go to regain its economic vitality. You only have to look at other countries to see we are right . . . although it may take time to convince everyone of this fact.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.