Japan depicted as far from Utopian

In 1980 NBC aired a prize-winning ``White Paper'' called ``If Japan Can . . . Why Can't We?'' It focused on the great advantage the Japanese enjoyed in industrial productivity. Now, six years later, another ``NBC White Paper,'' The Japan They Don't Talk About (Tuesday, 10-11 p.m.), gives us a broader look and finds things not quite as rosy as the first time around. Producers Ray Lockhart and Peter Poor wisely encouraged writer-reporter Lloyd Dobyns to take viewers on a personalized tour of a Japan in which a working family spends 25 percent of its income on food (twice as much as the average American family). It's a land of $25 melons and 90-cent apples. The greatest luxury in Tokyo is space -- and for $250,000 you can get around 1,200 square feet of minimal housing. New homes are being built on 1/25th-acre lots.

``Americans who have studied the Japanese system . . . have usually stayed with the biggest plants and best-known industries,'' explains Mr. Dobyns in an oblique criticism of the previous NBC report. He then takes us on a visit to an antiquated factory sweatshop, filled with women working for a pittance. ``But one part of what we've been told is true,'' he says. ``These workers produce quality switches at low cost. The reason has more to do with ancient tradition than with modern technique.''

Most of Japan's large factories are kept going by subcontractors -- little plants that make parts and deliver them to the big plants, which assemble the parts rather than make them. ``The giants dictate price, quality, and delivery time, and the subcontractors either meet these demands or go bankrupt,'' explains Dobyns. The employees in the small plants often work under dismal conditions with no security at all. Some of the biggest Japanese firms have as many as 3,000 subcontractors, all totally dependent upon the good will of the big guys.

This documentary may come as revelation to those who have been inundated with books and articles about modern Japan's ``economic miracle.'' We have been told over and over again about lifetime employment by respectful employers, superb working conditions, union-management-government cooperation, cradle-to-grave security. Well, Dobyns takes viewers on a disillusioning tour of the real Japan of today.

``This is the Japan where lifetime employment does not exist; where wages are low, hours long, and benefits nonexistent,'' he says. ``Workers squeeze their small salaries for savings because, if they don't, they could spend their old age in poverty.''

A middle-class family of four, he explains, often lives in space that would fit into one American living room. There's rarely central heating, air conditioning, or even sewers. And food prices are extraordinarily high.

Dobyns concedes that much of what we have been told about Japan is true -- but only at the highest levels of society, where there are real economic miracles. At the bottom, there is no automation, no protection, no modern efficiency, no high wages.

So, while 30 percent of the Japanese work force seems to be treated well and works under the conditions that have been well publicized, 70 percent work for very low wages in unpleasant surroundings, with an uncertain future.

What is most amazing, Dobyns finds, is that the Japanese who live under these conditions do not seem to protest.

Despite the crowding, the high cost of food and housing, the open sewers, etc., the Japanese now have the highest life expectancy in the world. But their social security system is inadequate to cope with the growing number of over-65 citizens who are no longer being cared for in the traditional way in the home of their children.

Yes, it is true, says Dobyns, that the individual savings rate in Japan is the highest in the industrial world. But that is largely due to people saving more than they can comfortably afford, because they realize they can expect little help when they retire.

This ``White Paper,'' put together under the aegis of veteran executive producer Reuven Frank, is not simply a negative debunking job. It recognizes the wonders of a country that holds on to many unique traditions, as it fights its way to the top of the modern industrial world.

But at the same time, Dobyns feels compelled, in the name of balance and honest reportage, to point out -- with fascinating new footage, incisive observations, and pointed interviews -- what many past reports have failed to underline: Modern-day Japan is not Utopia.

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