Japan steel magnate calls competition for 'things' unnecessary

The president of Japan's most prestigious and powerful economic federation preaches a philosophy that contrasts with the ''growth for growth's sake'' approach that has characterized Japanese business thinking.

''We Japanese have achieved a pretty satisfactory standard of living,'' says Yoshihiro Inayama, president of the Keidanren, the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations. ''Why not be satisfied with what we have? Why should we want more , in terms of material goods? What we should really be emphasizing today is not growth but stability.''

But aren't you afraid that if the Japanese economy doesn't keep growing, if people don't keep producing more and more goods, as they've been doing for all these years, the economy will lose its vitality? People will lose their sense of purpose, their sense of a life worth living? he was asked.

''You talk about vitality,'' Mr. Inayama shot back, ''but what is vitality, anyway? It's the ability to live. If we didn't have that ability, we wouldn't be alive. Why does that vitality have to come from producing more and more things? People work to earn their living. They don't have to find their joy in living from their work. Why not in music, for instance?

''I don't decry work. Many people do find their joy in living in work. I think that's splendid. But even with such people, I don't think it's just the prospect of earning more and more money that motivates them. They find their joy in the work itself - without it they would feel lost.

''What I decry is the idea that because we business people have been devoting all our energies for all these years to making more and more goods, and competing with each other for a larger and larger share of the market, we have to continue to do so ad infinitum. And I particularly disagree with the idea that, unless we do so, we will lose our vitality.''

Mr. Inayama has been a steel man all his working life. He has been president and chairman of Nippon Steel, the free world's largest steelmaker. He saw Japan's steel production grow from 10 million tons a year in 1955 to 40 million tons in 1965 and to 92 million tons in 1970. In 1973 Japan's steel production reached 120 million tons. Since then, however, production has declined. It is barely 100 million tons this year. ''Next year we may well go below 100 million tons,'' he says.

World recession and the aftermath of the 1973 oil shock are the principal reasons for steel's poor prospects. But Mr. Inayama says there is another basic reason. Essentially, people in the developed countries, including Japan, have achieved a pretty good standard of living and do not demand more cars, or more cameras, or more television sets in the way they used to during the roaring '60 s.

As early as 1970, when Japan's steel production had reached 92 million tons, Mr. Inayama said the developed countries had reached a stage of economic saturation and would enter a period of low growth.

''But then, the government was still planning for 13 million more tons of steel every year. I said that was nonsense, but everyone else wanted to make more steel. They invested huge sums in new plants and equipment, they signed contracts with Australia to import huge additional supplies of iron ore and coal , they ordered new ore carriers from shipyards. Then came the oil shock and world recession. As a result, we have enormous overcapacity in steel today.

''I think the competitive spirit is a fine thing and keeps us on our toes. But competition over things can get out of hand. What people really want today is stability. Let's keep our competitive spirit, but do away with competition over things.

''It's time we started thinking, What is man? In the old days, thrift and endurance were almost a kind of religion. Today, people work and get paid a fair reward for their labor. Beyond that, why not enjoy life?''

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