Voices of a Reluctant Superpower

ATTENTION is lavished these days on many aspects of US-Japanese relations. For its part, public opinion poll reports in the US have concentrated on what Americans think about Japan - especially its products and trade practices. But, interestingly, they have attended little to the matter of how the Japanese view their own society. The Japanese people are proud of their country's achievements. A recent survey by Chuo Chosa Sha found that 71 percent considered Japanese products superior to those made in the US or Europe; 65 percent called Japan an economic superpower. According to a May 1990 survey done by Nippon Research, the Japanese see their economy the second strongest in the world, after the US.

But the Japanese view of their own affairs is hardly all rosy. The May Nippon Research poll just cited found real doubts about the economic future. Asked, for example, whether they expected their children to enjoy a higher standard of living than their own, the public split sharply - 32 percent saying it would be higher, 31 percent that it wouldn't be, while 38 percent were unsure. On other matters, a December 1987 survey showed that, by a margin of 2-1, the Japanese believe economic inequality is rising in their country. A summer 1989 poll by the Tokyo Broadcasting System asked its respondents to compare housing in Japan to that in the US: 77 percent thought the latter was better.

The grass is always greener. Polls show the Japanese far less sanguine than we are about the quality of Japanese education. While Americans say Japanese education is ahead of ours, the Japanese don't think so. Only 28 percent in a 1988 Yomiuri Shimbun survey said they were satisfied with their country's schools.

More striking is the finding that while Americans bemoan the loss of family values in their own country, the Japanese think we have stronger family values than they do. College-educated Japanese, who presumably have more information on the US, are even more inclined to the view that Americans manifest stronger families. Also contradicting a stereotype is the finding that three-fourths of Japanese think that people should work primarily for their own satisfaction, rather than for the company's success.

Americans have many concerns about their own lot and their country's performance. A CBS News survey of June 1989 found, for example, only 22 percent completely satisfied with their own lives. But a parallel survey by the Tokyo Broadcasting System showed the Japanese expressing higher levels of dissatisfaction: only 7 percent were fully satisfied with their lot, 31 percent dissatisfied. In general, the picture that Japanese opinion polls paint is of a society justly proud of its industrial achievements but otherwise quite critical of its performance.

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