Japan: Working Like Crazy

ONE quickly gets a sense of the tremendous energy and economic power in Japan, most of it drawn to and increasingly concentrated in the Tokyo area. In fact, as one drives around nearby Yokohama, where miles of docks and cranes seem almost overwhelming in their number, one gets a sense of powerful industrial strength that is almost intimidating. Several impressions struck me immediately and were repeatedly verified. The first is that there is no place for children to play (although there are a good many toy stores). Every possible piece of land that can accommodate growing rice is indeed occupied with growing rice. Where there are individual houses, they are clustered together with no room for playing. One doesn't see children playing except on school grounds. Under the guidance and pressure of their mothers, children start competing very early for places in preferred schools and begin to work hard at it. Children's concentration on their studies intensifies as they get older. When they go to junior high and high school, in addition to their regular courses, they take special coaching courses to compete in the examinations for admission to the preferred schools. This pattern of hard work becomes so ingrained that it's with good reason that Japanese children who come to school in the US compete so effectively.

Long, intense work hours continue into adulthood. In Kurashiki, one of the large cities in south central Japan, I stayed at the Kurashiki Grand Hotel, which was built over the commuter rail station. When I went downstairs at 8:30 p.m. to buy something, I encountered a heavy rush of home-bound commuters. The working day for many in managerial and office ranks is at least 12 hours and often longer. CBS's ``60 Minutes'' recently aired a report on the exhaustion of Japanese managers who were working long hours, often without being paid for them. My casual observations seemed to confirm that practice. On the returning airplane, my seatmate was a US Navy employee who had been involved in negotiations with Mitsubishi. He reported they started their negotiations at 9:00 a.m., had lunch brought in, and the Americans were allowed to go to their hotels at 9:00 p.m., while the Japanese continued their work. It's hard to conceive of Americans working regularly that intensely.

The second impression is that Japan is a country of great honesty. There are motor scooters and bicycles everywhere, but I did not see one locked up. Only once was I urged to buy something and that was on the next-to-last day of the trip at the Osaka Expo 90 where a hawker of umbrellas was trying to take advantage of the threatening rain. Although the department stores were well stocked, often with high-priced Western merchandise, and the Japanese are trying to emulate American ways in their appearance and manner, there seemed to be no high pressure anywhere. The department stores themselves were colorfully designed, highly attractive, and, unlike most of our own, had massive food emporiums in their basements.

The third immediate impression is that there are coin machines everywhere, particularly for liquid refreshments. The ubiquitous 100-yen coin will buy not only soft drinks, but good hot or cold coffee as well, and often more substantial food.

Finally, an impression of a status symbol. The cost of living in Japan is very high. Housing is scarce and limited. It is particularly costly in the big cities. Since it is difficult for young people to afford to buy houses or apartments, those who want to shine do so by buying sporty cars. Excerpted by permission from ``The Levinson Letter,'' Copyright 1990 The Levinson Institute, Inc.

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