THOUGH Japan's main economic indicators show that a return to the inflated "bubble" economy is possible, experts say that is not likely.
Raw material for a "bubble" economy includes the following factors: Interest rates are at the same historic low as in 1987, when massive speculation in stock and property markets enabled Japanese firms to go on a global buying spree; the Japanese currency has surged in value about 7 percent in the past three weeks, the fastest rise since the 1985 Plaza Accords that pushed up the yen in an attempt to reduce a rising trade surplus; and in the most striking similarity to the late 1980s, the United States is
again asking Japan for a pump-priming package that would boost domestic demand, draw in more imports, and help fuel the world economy.
But the differences between today and 1987 are striking, notes Robert Feldman, an economist at Salomon Brothers Asia Ltd. Japan's property, equity, and nonmanufacturing sector are very weak. The fixed costs of industry, including the burden of hefty investments in automated factories by carmakers, are much higher than in the past. Nissan Motor Company, for instance, which invested most heavily among Japanese carmakers in robot assembly, has announced the closing of one of its plants by 1995 and the "tran sfer" or "voluntary" retirement of 2,500 workers.
The move is unprecedented in Japan, and may soon be followed by work force cutbacks in other firms that have promised lifelong employment.
Public gloom persists that economic recovery may not come this year. A new book, "Honest Poverty," has become a bestseller because it offers advice on how to live a simple lifestyle.
Also different from the "bubble" era is the lack of strong foreign pressure on Japan to boost its sagging domestic economy, which is in a recession. At the Feb. 27 meeting in London of finance ministers from the G-7 industrialized nations, barely a word of criticism was reported against Japan. "Governments have made requests of one another at past G-7 meetings, but this time each nation made no request of each other," said Japan's central bank governor, Yasushi Mieno.
The political will to muster up another supplementary fiscal package, after proposing a $90 billion one only last August, is lacking among many Japanese officials. Finance Minister Yoshiro Hayashi said that additional pump-priming measures are not necessary for now. The $90 billion fiscal package has not passed parliament due to a political scandal.
But by the time Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa heads to Washington in mid-April for his first meeting with President Clinton, another stimulus package may be ready to show the US that Japan is serious about reducing its trade surplus by boosting imports. Japan also wants to impress leaders who will come to Tokyo in July for the G-7 summit.
A year ago, Japan promised the US that it would deliver 3.3 percent economic growth, but the rate has been less than 1.5 percent. And the trade surplus jumped 38 percent last year.
When US Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen suggested in February that a stronger yen might be one way to reduce the surplus, the yen dropped to a historic level of 115.88 to the dollar on Feb. 22, having floated at around 125 yen per dollar for months.
This surge sent panic through Japanese exporters, who pushed the government to try to avoid using the yen-dollar exchange rate as a solution to trade friction and to instead focus on fiscal stimulus.
The political opposition parties have proposed an income tax cut of $32.8 billion, or about $850 for a family of four. But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party resists the move because it would bring about a long-term revenue shortfall. In fact, a revenue shortage of some $384 billion to $478 billion is forecasted within the next 25 years due to Japan's rapidly aging society. Just to meet that shortfall would mean raising the tax on national income from the present 40 percent to the 51- to 58-percent rang e.
Mr. Miyazawa is skeptical of any quick reduction in the trade surplus. He told reporters recently that any economic stimulus would take five years to have an effect.
As an alternative, he plans to announce a 40 percent increase in Japan's foreign aid over the next five years. The new amount, likely to be a minimum of $70 billion, would show that Japan is making international contributions by recycling its trade surplus.