A sense of identity

`HOW many people do you have working under you?'' the young Japanese glider pilot asked her father, the bureaucrat. ``Oh, 40 or 50,'' he replied.

``Well, when I'm gliding over Tokyo, I have 10 million people working under me,'' was her rejoinder.

This exchange, we would like to say, epitomizes Japan today: a daring young woman pursuing an adventurous avocation and gently ribbing her father - and he evidently taking it with good grace, since he was our source for the story.

But after a recent visit in the Land of the Rising Sun, we came away with the feeling that much of the ``new Japan'' is but a thin lacquering over of a distinctly less Westernized and less industrialized Japan than we might have imagined.

A passage from a letter from the early American patriot John Adams, of all people, comes to mind: ``I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy ... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music....''

Politics the Japanese have down all right; their practice of democracy makes them an honorary member of ``the West.'' War they have been through, as no other people have been. And if engineering and business management techniques can count as ``mathematics and philosophy,'' the Japanese have clearly mastered Adams's second stage. But what about ``painting, poetry, and music''?

Literally speaking, the Japanese have demonstrated their facility here, too. But more broadly considered, do they have time to smell the flowers in the gardens they love? Are they enjoying the fruits of their labor as an economic superpower? Is commercial success going to be enough to be truly soul-satisfying for the Japanese? And where are all those men going with their briefcases on a Sunday afternoon, anyway?

Many Japanese are beginning to feel there is more to life than long hours at work, followed by a long commute home for a few hours' sleep, and then another commute back to the office. They are also seeking more creature comforts - however impressive its gross national product, Japan lags behind other developed nations in such basics as central heating and sewage systems.

The social contract between the sexes is also being renegotiated, though gradually and not without misgivings. Women are beginning to demand more genuine companionability in their marriages than is afforded by the work life of the typical ``salaryman.'' But Japanese houses are going to have to get bigger if a woman's husband around the house is not going to be simply underfoot in the one domain that is indisputably hers.

First in a series.

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