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Mood of Japan: a nation at peace -- and adrift

War games are enjoying a boom among university and high school students in Japan. A film on the suicidal final sortie of the battleship Yamato is drawing capacity crowds in downtown Tokyo. A movement to give official governmental status to Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine commemorating the war dead, seems to be gaining ground.

Yet, in this humid, hot month of August, Japan is overwhelmingly a nation at peace, affluent and hard-working but without much sense of purpose. Does the Reagan administration, over there in distant Washington, cry out aloud over the Soviet menace? No one, except a handful of scholars, diplomats, and businessmen concerned about Japanese-American relations, seems to care much.

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"Crystal" is the latest catchword of the younger generation. "We don't read many books, we don't throw ourselves into anything with enthusiasm," says a character in Yasuo Tanaka's best seller, which originated the term. "But our heads aren't empty, nor are they foggy, are they? They aren't mirror-bright, and of course they aren't wet either. Cool wouldn't be the right word. 'Crystal' isn't such a good word, either, but well, perhaps, it comes closest to describing what we are."

Expanding on this definition in a recent press briefing, Mr. Tanaka said that in the stable, prosperous Japan of today, few persons can start from scratch and build themselves up through their own efforts into distinctive individuals. Therefore young people seek to define themselves in terms of the clothes they wear, the things they buy, the places they go to.

Older folk who castigate their juniors as hedonistic and materialistic are just as "crystal" as the youngsters, because they define themselves in terms of the universities they attended and the companies they work for. They are "crystal" because, like crystal, they can only be defined by reflecting light from an outside source.

The 25-year-old Mr. Tanaka's book "Kind of Crystal" (as in "I'm kind of happy , kind of lonely") has sold over 1 million copies since January.

It is "crystal" to play complicated mathematical war games without thinking about the cruelty and suffering involved in real wars. It is "crystal" to queue for war movies without finding one's emotions really engaged.

And the people of Premier Zenko Suzuki's generation who went to war, then worked to rebuild their shattered lives and communities from the ashes of defeat are proud of what they have achieved but uncertain what their next goals should be.

More prosperity, more possessions? A larger share of responsibility for managing the global community, to safeguard the fruits of the past against potentially destructive enemies.

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August is remembrance month in Japan, starting with Hiroshima Aug. 6, and going on to the emperor's tremulous broadcast ending the war Aug. 15 and the surrender aboard the Missouri in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2.

The news media are awash with editorials urging a "return to the starting point"; to a combination of the sense of utter desolation and a feeling of starting afresh which marked that August 36 years ago.

Editorials also remember the "Nixon shock" of Aug. 15, 1971, when President Nixon cut the dollar's link to gold, ending the era of fixed exchange rates.

Japan survived that shock, as well as the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. Inflation has been brought under control, the economy continues to grow, unemployment is low. US and European manufacturers have been rushing to see how these islanders do it.

Most Japanese are tickled by the praise (seasoned with envy) showered on them , but uneasy over it, too.

"We worked hard to achieve what we have today," said one of Japan's top business analysts, "to restructure our economy, to weed out uncompetitive or inefficient industries, to retrain our workers, to open up new fields. We get upset when Europeans or Americans who have not made comparable efforts accuse us of dumping and other unfair practices."

But if Japan's business leaders are concerned about US and European reactions to their successes, they are uncertain what to do about it. They know that, militarily, Japan is practically defenseless and that it depends almost entirely on the outside world for its raw materials and its markets.

But this realization of Japan's vulnerabilities seems to be grasped only as theory by the vast majority of their own countrymen. Are 117 million Japanese living in a fool's paradise? Is that what being "crystal" is all about?

Whatever the reason, neither politican nor businessman nor scholar seems yet to be able to articulate his awarenesses and his concerns in terms of an overall strategy capable of galvanizing his people and helping provide answers for the global community as well.

Most Japanese are willing to pay their dues as members of the world community. They know as their relative weight increases, so must the onerousness of their dues. But their willingness does not go beyond keeping up with the Japanese.

As Mr. Tanaka might put it, if some outside source of light hits them, they will refract its rays. It does not seem to occur to them that there might be a light that comes from within.

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