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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Changing Lifestyles : How Three Asian Families Work, Play, Learn and Pray : Meet the Suzukis of Hiratsuka, Japan . . .

May 21, 1991|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FATHER: Isamu Suzuki, 41, a technician and currently chairman of his plant's union, as well as a volleyball enthusiast.

MOTHER: Toshi Suzuki, 44, a part-time clerk whose hobbies are calligraphy and softball.

CHILDREN: Son Koji Suzuki, 18, a college freshman studying data processing who also works part-time at a hamburger shop.

Son Nobuyuki Suzuki, 16, a high school junior obsessed with baseball who wants to work in a bank.

LIFESTYLE: The Suzukis typify the change and upward mobility that have swept Japan since World War II and have made even the average couple affluent.

Isamu makes the equivalent of nearly $47,000 a year at the Kansai Paint Co. factory, where he has worked for 23 years. His wife, Toshi, brings in another $3,700 from her typically low-paying, three-hour-a-day clerical job. Their combined earnings almost exactly match the $50,800 national average for Japanese households--a figure far above the United States (about $29,000) and any other country in Asia.

While Isamu's railway worker father never even dreamed of owning an automobile, the Suzukis will soon join the 30% of Japanese households who own two or more. Eldest son Koji is saving for a car from his $740 monthly earnings from a part-time job.

Still, the family lives in a tiny, 360-square-foot, four-room apartment in Hiratsuka, a city 40 miles southwest of Tokyo, where a Los Angeles-style 7,000-square-foot lot could cost $1.5 million.

Their rent is only $163 a month--4% of their household income--because they live in a government housing complex. A similar private apartment would cost at least four times as much.

ON WORK AND LEISURE: An active family, the Suzukis "hardly ever see each other all at once," mother Toshi said. Not since Koji started junior high school have they taken a family vacation.

Isamu works only five days a week--less than the Japanese average. He also gets more than 20 days off a year--mostly when his factory closes down for vacation during holiday periods. In addition, he is entitled to 20 personal vacation days although, he said, "I only take four or five . . . when I take any at all."

His nominal working hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but he is usually away from home for at least 12 hours each weekday. The extra hours are spent on his job as union chairman, he said.

Despite the rising value of the Japanese yen, which has driven up manufacturing costs and pushed workers' pay above American standards, Isamu's main concern is not competition from imports but Kansai Paint's chief domestic rival. Wearing his union hat, Isamu said the biggest challenge for labor is to come up with a means for the average worker to buy his own home despite the horrendous cost of land. At the same time, "we are now stressing reduction of working hours," even though employees at his plant already put in the equivalent of 23 fewer 8-hour days than the Japanese average and about two days less than the U.S. norm.

ON EDUCATION: The Suzuki sons hope to be the first in the immediate family to get a college education. None of their grandparents got as far as high school. Their parents had 12 years' schooling.

Unlike many Japanese sons, who endure the prodding of what has come to be known as an "education mama," Koji said he has never been "pressured at home to study. I guess I got the feeling from my school friends that I ought to go to college--that if you get a better education, you can get a better job and a better wife." About half the members of his graduating class entered college, he said, compared with the 36% national average.

Koji added that he spent "only one year" preparing for his college entrance exam--the make-or-break hurdle that governs the kind of job that young people can expect to hold for the rest of their lives.

Nobuyuki is already attending a juku , or cram school, to take English lessons in preparation for his college entrance exam.

ON RELIGION: Like most Japanese, the Suzukis find the typical mixture of Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism so ingrained in their daily life that they don't identify customs they practice as religious. Asked about their religious beliefs, the Suzukis initially said they had none.

While never given any formal religious teaching, the Suzukis acknowledged that they and their sons go to a Shinto shrine on New Year's Eve to offer hatsumode, the first prayers of the year. And, yes, the Suzukis visit ancestors' graves during the August o-bon season, when spirits of the dead are believed to return.

Isamu, facing what the Japanese call a yaku-doshi, or "year of bad fortune" believed to overtake men with their 42nd birthday, said he had also gone to a shrine to pray for good health. And his wife said she had arranged for a priest to create posthumous Buddhist names for her parents when they died.

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