For Mr. Nakagawa, getting a house grows more elusive

Kenji Nakagawa has been saving for his own home for the past 10 years. He and his wife have managed to squirrel away about $40,000 with careful budgeting. But the 37-year-old trading company employee wonders if he will reach his goal.

Counting agents' fees and various taxes, the house would come to a grand total of $220,000 - more than 10 times Mr. Nakagawa's annual salary - to buy 1, 836 square feet of land near where he lives and to build a five-room house on it. Even with bank and government housing loans, he would not be able to afford the monthly repayments without being promoted to at least managing director - a dim prospect.

So convince him that the Japanese economy is doing well compared with the United States and Europe. A few years ago, when the Japanese economy still seemed to be maintaining a reasonable head of steam, Kenji's standard of living was steadily rising, close to general European, if not American, levels. Now it seems to be on the decline.

Although his base pay rises a bit each year, Mr. Nakagawa's take-home pay gets slimmer, as there has been no income-tax cut for seven years, and inflation has pushed him into a higher tax bracket. That and rising prices of all basic commodities have totally negated pay increases. Management says Japan is still deep in recession and the money just isn't available.

The government is talking about an income-tax cut this summer, with an eye to crucial elections around June. But it would amount to only about $40 a person, and government experts are working hard on ways to claw back that amount and more through new forms of taxation.

The government explains it cannot do anything else, in view of the fact that it is running up many billions of dollars in debts in successive annual budgets. Spending has been cut to the bone this year, but it still doesn't keep pace with the decline in revenue as struggling businesses pay less taxes.

A new economy-boosting package was announced last week, but it aroused little enthusiasm. Its key measures call for putting the bulk of public-works spending into the first half of this fiscal year (which began April 1) to help basic industries back on their feet, and an attempt to boost housing starts by promising people like Mr. Nakagawa that he will be able to pass on his mortgage debt to his children.

On the surface, things perhaps don't look too bad. The government just announced a $9.3 billion trade surplus for fiscal 1982, the third largest in the postwar era. But looking behind the figure, one discovers that exports dropped 10.1 percent from the year before, the biggest decline since 1952. A sluggish business performance meant imports were down 10.8 percent. Both exports and imports have been declining inexorably for 14 straight months.

A new government survey finds business leaders gloomily predicting ''no early recovery,'' and company bankruptcies are running at near-record levels of more than 1,600 a month.

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