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Regional Outlook : Blinded by Success, Japan Searches for a New Vision : A nation driven by the pursuit of prosperity must regain control of the giant it has created. As it tries to relocate its center, the Land of the Rising Sun is finding that wealth has its responsibilities--and its costs.

June 19, 1990|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — For perhaps the first time since it resurrected itself from the ruins of World War II, Japan appears to be without a plan.

The country's one-dimensional foreign policy--promoting commercial interests abroad--has been made obsolete by its very success. It brought home phenomenal wealth, but it also generated demands that Japan assume more of the responsibilities of a great power, demands that Japan is not yet prepared to meet.

The powerful bureaucracy that charted postwar development with a bold industrial policy is now in a state of near-paralysis, consumed with the task of reacting piecemeal to foreign criticism rather than establishing a clear set of national priorities.

And the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that has reigned for the past four decades is so ossified that it can barely cope with domestic and international pressures. This political sclerosis contributed to a general lack of confidence that nearly crashed Japan's mighty financial markets earlier this year, as investors wondered whether anyone was in control.

Japan's new drift is unwittingly documented in a major policy report, "Vision for the 1990s," currently being patched together by the Industrial Structure Council, a prestigious advisory panel attached to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

Since 1960, the ministry has issued one of these reports every 10 years to serve as a blueprint for economic growth. Past "visions" have articulated the nation's long-range, strategic aims: the aggressive push into steel and shipbuilding; the shift to precision machinery, automobiles and consumer electronics; and most recently, in the 1980s, the quest for frontiers in high technology.

Now, the vision taking shape is disjointed and ambivalent. One key section actually makes it a priority to suppress the drive for industrial prowess by curtailing marathon work hours, for example. The ministry's advice for over-achieving Japanese is to reap the rewards of their own diligence, even to indulge themselves as consumers.

But the average Japanese workaholic knows that an array of problems must be resolved before he can stop to smell the flowers. The lack of a policy to restrain land prices and build affordable housing makes the report's theme of "Comfort and Affluence" sound like a cruel joke for first-time home buyers. A critical labor shortage puts the goal of cutting down overtime into the realm of fantasy.

Bureaucrats may prescribe relaxation, but the most popular television commercial over the past year features a super "salary man" who bellows out an absurdly frenetic battle song: "Can you fight 24 hours a day?"

The ad is for Regain, a pep drink concocted of caffeine, nicotine and vitamin C. People have taken to singing the Regain song in Tokyo bars.

Another new visionary theme is that Japan, the economic superstate, must finally clarify its "ideals" for the benefit of a suspicious world. Lest there be any doubts,Japan's "ideals" are to promote free-market economics "based on the principles of liberty and democracy," declared the Industrial Structure Council's subcommittee on international economic affairs.

Elsewhere in the same report--which is scheduled for release at the end of this month--MITI's not-so-invisible hand is still itching to guide laissez faire market forces. The government should shape industry's future, it notes, by "identifying the seeds of innovative technology."

"The report is self-contradictory," observed the conservative Yomiuri newspaper in an editorial. "While it points out the importance of a market economy, it also refers to a number of issues the government should become involved in."

As if to deflect criticism that Japan cares only about its own "techno-national" interests, the drafters of the section on science and technology policy coined an enigmatic term, "techno-globalism." The apparent meaning is that Japan now wants to share its know-how, instead of being "techno-stingy."

If it sounds as though sweeping changes are under way in the mythical boardroom of Japan Inc., guess again. Between the lines is a message of confusion, obfuscation and a degree of political intransigence.

After decades of preparing ambitiously for the 21st Century, Japan is caught entering the 1990s without an idea of what it stands for, many Japanese fear.

"I'm finding that the failure on our part to articulate Japan's future direction is increasingly responsible for the breakdown in the international dialogue," said Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the Japan Center for International Exchange.

"We have no concerted effort to establish any kind of agenda, or foster any real debate on the issues we face," Yamamoto said. "This is an acute problem because Japan has suddenly emerged as a major player in world affairs."

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