THE "knowledge-value revolution" is coming, says Taichi Sakaiya, and the United States is better positioned for it than is Japan.Mr. Sakaiya is a Japanese economist and futurist, a former bureaucrat of MITI, Japan's redoubtable Ministry of International Trade and Industry. He was interviewed in Washington during a US tour to promote the English translation of his 1985 best-seller, "The Knowledge-Value Revolution," published by Kodansha International in Tokyo and New York. Sakaiya defines knowledge-value as "the worth or price a society gives to that which the society acknowledges to be creative wisdom." The more knowledge-value a product contains, the better it will sell, he suggests. He is not thinking merely of a service, such as education, or packaged information, such as software, he says, but of products embodying this "creative wisdom" in their design, their technology, and their specific functional capabilities. An animated, gnome-like figure who delights in spouting unorthodox opinions, Sakaiya likens the US to a Boeing jumbo jet and Japan to a thousand watches. "A thousand what?" I asked, not sure I had caught the right word. "That's right, watches," Sakaiya replied. "Every single one of them is meticulously made. Each one is exactly like the other. And they all point to exactly 2:30 the precise moment he was speaking. The jumbo jet is made up of innumerable parts, from big items like the fuselage or wings to precision instruments and assorted nuts, bolts, and screws. Japanese looking at each individual part may complain of scratches or small defects. But the Boeing's purpose is to fly, and every one of its parts is dedicated to that purpose. Whereas the 1,000 watches, each one of them superbly engineered, are just that - 1,000 watches. Surely there must be something more to Japan than that, a suspicious outsider asks. If the US is a Boeing, at least Japan must aspire to being a Cessna. To Sakaiya, it is such suspicions that lead critics like Prime Minister Edith Cresson of France to accuse Japan of aiming at world economic domination. She does not seem to grasp that behind those 1,000 watches, there is no master plan. "You sound like Karel van Wolferen," I said - Dutch author of "The Enigma of Power," who likened Japan to an onion. After peeling away layer after layer, he found no core, no final authority that made decisions. The buck didn't stop with anyone. It just went around and around. "People like Van Wolferen and James Fallows can be pretty accurate in their details," Sakaiya replied. "There is only one element missing in their analysis - the possibility that Japan can change." Returning to his analysis of the thousand watches, he said that each watch stood for a company. There they all were, he said, competing with each other to see who could produce the best watch. They had no purpose bigger than that, and they all ended up making the same watch. In the past 50 years, Japan has developed the world's most perfect system for making mass-produced, standardized products, Sakaiya said. He gave 1941 as the beginning of this process - the year of Pearl Harbor. Japan was then preparing for war, and the various government ministries - Commerce and Industry (the precursor of MITI), Railways, Education, - wanted to create a uniform system to turn out reliable, standardized products. The Education Ministry extended compulsory education to eight years (it had been six), with the purpose of turning out hardworking, cooperative, noncreative workers. Commerce and Industry promulgated uniform industrial standards. And so on. After the war, the American occupation briefly interrupted the process, But by the mid-1950s, it was once again under way. In cars, in electronic goods, and certain other manufactured products, Japan led the world. Its workers were cooperative; they were willing to put in long hours of overtime; they lacked independent creativity. But in nonmanufacturing fields - government services, or distribution, or publishing, Japan was much less efficient, and its costs were twice as high as those of Britain or the US, Sakaiya said. Meanwhile, the conditions that had favored the evolution of the perfect manufacturing system were eroding. Wages soared as the pool of available labor decreased. In a more affluent society, it was no longer sufficient to have perfectly made standardized products. People wanted more variety, better designs, a greater sense of individuality. Workers wanted longer holidays, more time with their families. And in manufactured goods, the value of raw materials counted for less and less, the value added by technology and original design for more and more. Education adequate for the standardized mass-production period was clearly inadequate in a changing society. These conditions, Sakaiya suggests, exist in all industrial societies, but are most acute in Japan precisely because the society was so well structured to turn out the products of the age of standardization. The Japanese still save more and work longer hours than any other industrial society. They still give priority to the individual as a producer, not the individual as a consumer. As a producer, the individual has indeed been rewarded; he has made a lot of money. But as a consumer he is confronted by high prices and not much choice. "The biggest problem for Japan," says Sakaiya in his book, "is not international trade frictions or the high cost of real estate, but the fact that as a society it offers so little that a person can get excited about or take pleasure in." Hence the need for a knowledge-value revolution. The US, too, has problems, Sakaiya admits. As individuals and as a society, it consumes too much and saves too little - the exact opposite of Japan. But because of its tradition of individualism and creativity, it is better positioned to meet the challenges of the knowledge-value society than is Japan. Sakaiya foresees a progressive erosion of the advantages Japan has enjoyed and a tilting of the playing-field in favor of the US. He says, however, that the transition to the knowledge-value society may not be smooth, either for Japan or for the US. Perceptions lag behind reality, and in the US the perception of Japan is that it is still a formidable economic machine. If Americans do not see what is coming, their resentment at Japan's increasing economic power may lead them to take more and more restrictive measures against the Japanese. Tokyo would take counter-measures, thus delaying the transition to a more open society. Within Japan, also, the mental obstacles to the knowledge-value revolution remain formidable. "There may well be a nasty showdown in the 1990s between the demands of those in Japan who hope to see more diversity made available, and the rigid stance taken by the bureaucrats and other groups whose occupations predispose them toward preserving the status quo of Japan's standardized mass-production system." Still, Sakaiya remains an optimist. Some elements of the Japanese character change very slowly - for instance, the predilection for consensus, born of centuries of rice-growing in villages where cooperation is essential to life. But the standardized mass production system, Sakaiya says, is only half a century old. In some previous periods, notably the sixteenth century, the Japanese were far more individualistic than they are today. "Time and wisdom," he says, are the two components of the knowledge-value society, and time, he is sure, will eventually bring the wisdom that is required.