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No More 'Catching Up' : Riches Give Japan New Confidence

February 26, 1985|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — When Takashi Watarai was a student at Nihon University two decades ago, there were days when he didn't have enough money to buy a 20-cent bowl of noodles for lunch. And he still remembers an ill-fitting shirt he received as a gift from a friend.

"The sleeves were too long, but I pulled them up at the shoulders and wore it anyway," he said.

The third child of a bankrupt soy sauce maker, Watarai was fortunate to be in college at all, for only 8.2% of Japan's college-age youths attended a university then.

Those days of poverty ended for Watarai in 1965, when he quit his first job and joined four friends in establishing a market research company. It was about the same time that the economic status of most other Japanese began to improve substantially, too.

Not Even a Bath

Unlike most Americans, the average Japanese family in the early 1960s not only did without a car, a telephone, a refrigerator and a stove but did not even have a bath to call its own. When Watarai, now 45, took his first job, more than half of Tokyo's population was forced to go to public baths.

The onrush of affluence that has hit Japan since then has brought vast material changes for the Japanese, has transformed once-rare luxuries into commonplace necessities and has had a profound psychological impact as well.

Today, Tokyo Survey Research Corp., the company established by Watarai and his four partners, operates seven subsidiaries, employs 205 full-time staff members and 5,200 part-time survey interviewers and last year registered sales of $10 million.

New Set of Worries

Watarai obviously no longer worries about how to pay for his next meal. What he is concerned about is whether his firm will be able, in the next 10 years, to do 20 times as much business with only three times as many employees.

"Any goal lower than that," he says, "would hardly be worth working for."

Watarai's attitude and ambition have parallels throughout Japanese society. The average Japanese earned $15,000 last year, 13 times the average wage of 1960. Japan's gross national product--the sum of all goods and services--has increased 18-fold over the same period, to $1.2 trillion.

The accomplishment of so much in so little time has spawned a new confidence that Japan can find its own way into the future or, at the least, continue to rank among the most dynamic nations. Catching up is no longer the name of the game.

Only in car ownership (about 65% of Japanese families now own a car) and size of housing units (927 square feet of floor space) does Japan rank noticeably below the United States. A college graduate today still has to spend half of his starting salary of $550 a month to rent an apartment in Tokyo--but the apartment will be twice the size of the standard one-room affair of 1960, and it will have a bath.

American cosmetics, Swedish furniture, French perfumes and designer fashions from around the world are available in Japanese shops. But as for the necessities of life, the belief that Japan already makes virtually everything it needs--and does it better and more cheaply than anybody else--has emerged among business leaders, government bureaucrats and the general public.

Self-Confidence, Pride

Some Japanese critics, among them Yukio Matsuyama, the head of the editorial board of the Asahi newspaper, regard this attitude as "arrogance," although others say it reflects only justifiable self-confidence and pride.

Today, it is hard to find anyone outside the nation's two leftist opposition parties, the Marxist-imbued Socialist Party and the Japan Communist Party, who worries about Japan's reverting to the authoritarian style of government and militarism that precipitated its disastrous defeat in World War II.

And while mention of "nationalism" still strikes a sour note in some circles, there is hardly anyone these days who isn't proud to be a Japanese.

Tetsuya Chikushi, chief editor of the Asahi Journal magazine, said recently that his readers often complain when the magazine prints articles critical about Japan. He called it a "nationalistic reaction" and said it is strongest among leftist readers.

Pride in Tradition

It wasn't that way at all in the early 1960s, when pride in Japan and its traditions was commonly equated with discredited militarism. Abject humility and national self-deprecation were standard then.

Other psychological changes are also apparent.

Affluence has brought a civility to public manners that the constraints of poverty did not allow. In 1960, large groups of Japanese resembled mobs. Only by battling one's way through a crowd, for example, did anyone manage to get to a ticket window to buy a ticket for a commuter railway or subway. Now, with an ample supply of ticket vending machines, Japanese politely wait in lines of manageable length.

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