AFTER four years of working in Brazil, Hiroyoshi Onishi had forgotten about the closed culture of corporations in his native Japan. Upon returning home, he was welcomed by a Tokyo computer software firm as an executive. But he found himself troubled by his gloomy and stressed fellow workers, some of whom just quit without notice.
``Japanese workers cannot get rid of stress because they belong only to a vertical society,'' argues Mr. Onishi, now a consultant in management training. People can go weeks without talking to anyone but co-workers and family in the hierarchy, he says, and they always get nervous about their relationship with seniors.
So, he quit six years ago and started a business discussion group made up of people who had heard him speak. Every Tuesday, they would meet just to talk - about almost any topic of business, an exchange of views and experiences that might lead anywhere.
His activity is part of a recent networking movement in this country among people of different businesses. Japan already had some networks, but they were generally groups of people sharing the same background or status, such as the``old boy'' network of financial executives or graduates of the prestigious Tokyo University.
Now a more open, horizontal connection between individuals is spreading in groups designed to break out of the vertical hierarchy that have become so limiting for many Japanese.
``Human networks among different businesses have become recently popular,'' says Kiyomu Shimomura, author of ``How to Make Human Networks'' (PHP Institute Inc., 1986). Organizing an annual party for representatives from such groups - a ``network of networks'' - he has seen the number of attendees soar in three years from 450 to more than 1,000 last year.
The Japanese culturally are more group-oriented than individualistic, preferring social harmony. They impose conformity by ``hammering down the nail that sticks up.'' Workers tend to mingle only with people from their company, both during working hours and on evening outings.
Such social conformity and insularity has helped Japan become an economic superpower since World War II.
But new-found wealth and influences from the West have made some Japanese seek flexibility and creativity in their professions and private life. Company leaders, too, see advantages in having employees diversify their interests.
Japanese networkers believe they can develop their own personality, feel warmth, and enjoy life more by encountering new people from different groups.
``While networking in the United States is used to overcome a feeling of being separate or alone, the Japanese use networks to open up their group-orientation,'' says Yasuo Harima, who established the Networking Society Institute in 1988 after learning about networks in the US.
The institute collects and provides information about networking in both Japan and foreign countries.
While Japan's global economic expansion forces people in this country to deal much more with foreigners, Mr. Harima says networking also may help ``internationalize'' Japanese.
``In order to accept [international] versatility, Japan itself has to have such versatility inside,'' he says.
A simple example of trying to change the normal insular nature of a Japanese group is that Onishi's network, known as the Tuesday Gathering, is open to anyone who wishes to join.
At a recent breakfast meeting, about 10 members, including people from insurance, textile, and tobacco companies, and even a policeman, got together in a Tokyo hotel to hear a guest speaker talk about marketing. The goal in this kind of mixed gathering is for each person to learn to relate to others with their own personality, not their company self.
``By knowing opinions of people from different industries, I feel broader-minded,'' says Yasuyuki Onoye, a textile company manager in the Tuesday Gathering. He finds conversation with his company workers to be dull because of little differences in their ideas.
``I learn how to appeal to someone new, which is to become an attractive personality. I would never have known about this if I had stayed solely inside my company,'' he says.
A few top-level company managers, once careful to make sure that an employee's outside activities would not reduce productivity or disrupt workplace harmony, are encouraging participation in network groups. Some executives have asked to join Onishi's group.
``Conditions are set for Japan to enter an era when different ideas can meet to bring about something new,'' says Mr. Shimomura, citing a change in Japan's economy from manufacturing to financing, information, and other services.
These networkers may be, as Shimomura puts it, ``still business-minded,'' as their participation in networking is eventually for the sake of their corporate groups. But, he stressed, ``I think it's the human touch that makes networking popular here.''
As the Japanese workplace becomes more impersonal with more robots and computers, people seek to keep personal friends and interests.
Also, with longer life expectancy, the average Japanese citizen can now expect to live some 20 years beyond retirement.
``If you dedicate your whole life to a corporate activity, you may end up having no true friends,'' Shimomura says. ``Since a company does not take care of you after you retire (except for a pension), people have started to realize they have to depend on themselves.''
Some Japanese have begun to resist the idea that they should dedicate their entire life effort to a company. But to break out of such a social pattern can be difficult. Last November, Toshiaki Nakayama, a press photographer, started Infonet, a network for people to exchange information. ``Something surprising can come from mixing people, much like communication between different data bases,'' the photographer says.
He thinks Japan should allow people to use one-third of their ability outside corporations. ``Even if you rebel, a company won't send you to the guillotine or make you quit,'' Mr. Nakayama says with a laugh. ``I may not be able to get a promotion, though.''