Japan Looks to Its Workers To Sustain Economic Growth

New government blueprint aims to reduce alienation

FOR a peek at what the future may hold for Japan, one need go no farther than Yokohama, just outside Tokyo. There the world's first indoor surfing center is being built. When finished, it will make waves for an emerging breed of leisure-seeking Japanese.

But the oddest aspect of this tsunami-like thrill lies in the fact that the backer is a leading Japanese steelmaker, Nippon Kokan Corporation.

Redirecting Japanese industry to become more ``human-oriented'' has become the oracle's cry for the Japan of the 1990s. And, as in past decades, the oracle itself is the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI.

``It is now important that Japan create an environment that will enable individuals to lead a leisurely life,'' states MITI's blueprint for the decade.

Past MITI blueprints, or ``visions,'' have set the pace every 10 years for postwar Japanese export industries to take a share of selected world markets. Each economic strategy helped the government ``guide'' companies to invest heavily in such areas as steel, cars, or computer chips.

This decade, the target is ``creating human values in the global age.''

Does this mean Japan has gone soft?

Not exactly. Keeping Japan's giant manufacturers healthy still has top priority. And the MITI report warns that Japan must not follow other industrialized nations which are losing vitality in ``making things'' while favoring such high-wage, service businesses as finance and banking.

Rather, MITI's bureaucrats are worried by two disturbing trends: increasing alienation of Japanese workers and isolation of Japan from other nations. Both could adversely effect industry in the future, and the MITI vision aims to head off trouble.

``We have to recognize clearly that Japanese society in the past used to be a corporation-oriented society,'' Kunio Morikiyo, director of MITI's policy planning.

MITI's analysis finds the Japanese people holding ``increasing doubts'' that their living standards have risen along with corporate wealth. Without change soon, ``a feeling of frustration may permeate society,'' MITI report states.

To boost the quality of life, the agency gently nudges other ministries to take such steps as lowering prices on consumer items and housing, and reducing working hours (which are 10 percent higher than those of other industrial nations).

MITI, now less powerful than before as Japanese corporations have grown bigger and more independent, finds it must battle other bureaucracies to achieve its goals. Strangely enough, one of its new allies is the United States.

During the recent talks known as the Structural Impediments Initiative (SII), the US and MITI were often on the same side in negotiations over how to reform the Japanese economy.

To beat back corporate and special interests lodged in various ministries, MITI along with the US and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu became champions of the ``individual'' Japanese.

The SII ``owes its successful completion to the support of many Japanese who seek a change toward a more consumer-oriented society,'' Mr. Kaifu told an Atlanta audience last week.

The other goal for MITI is to prevent Japan from being isolated from the global community as other nations increasingly distrust its economic power. MITI fears a recent trend among some foreign scholars and authors to see Japan as a closed and neomercantile society, and thus needing to be treated in global trading under a different set of rules.

Such an argument, Kaifu said in his speech, is ``mistaken.''

MITI's vision tries to play up what Japan has in common with the West. ``As the notion of Japan's inherent uniqueness appears, it is extremely important that Japan remind the world that it shares with the advanced nations the fundamental belief in a free society,'' the report states.

Rather than ``level the playing field'' of business rules within Japan to make it more open to foreigners, as President Bush has suggested, MITI offers instead that all nations ``expand the playing field'' with economic growth, while ``respecting the differences rooted in the values of the world's societies.''

The MITI vision raised some eyebrows among foreign diplomats in Tokyo with its proposal that Japan will be the ``standard bearer'' for the world's free economies. But before Japan can be a leader of the free economies, says Noboru Hatakeyama, director-general of MITI's international trade policy bureau, it must first complete many internal reforms.

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