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Nonfiction in Brief

283 USEFUL IDEAS FROM JAPAN: by Leonard Koren (Chronicle Books: $8.95)

July 31, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

As Japan's economy has come to rival America's in recent years, we've at least been able to take consolation in the fact that Americans still have a monopoly on ingenuity; the Japanese, after all, are only productive copycats. "283 Useful Ideas From Japan" effectively squashes this feeble attempt at reassurance. City planners, in fact, might want to take heed of some of the far-sighted strategies for urban prosperity described and illustrated in these good-humored pages. Tokyo streets, for instance, are specially designed to allow surface water to seep into the water table underground, reducing the likelihood of an earthquake. It is misleading, however, to call most of these inventions "useful," for they are largely items of luxury. Though the authors don't analyze the trend, the Japanese, by demanding more rewards for their unparalleled productivity, seem to be surpassing Americans in self-indulgence. There are clinics specializing in "restoring virginity" and eliminating body odor by removing offending sweat glands, hair salons using video monitors to project how 300 styles will look on a client.

In an appendix, the author lists suppliers for these gadgets and services--a sound idea, for some are bound to spread through the wealthy world in coming years, such as head-cooling pillows and two-person telephones. Other ideas, however, will not translate as easily into Western culture. Americans, for instance, are hesitant to break out of their mature mien and engage in eccentric role-playing, and so it's difficult to imagine a community in the United States like Jipangu-koku, where all residents dress in samurai garb and play their part every day.

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