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Japan's message to US: quality not quantity is key

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''In 10 to 20 years,'' says Deputy Foreign Minister Moriyuki Motono, ''the harsh Japanese competition will be seen to have been a stimulus to Americans to reorient their thinking.''

These words sum up a viewpoint widespread among Japanese leaders - that the United States retains undiminished economic potential for the future, but currently seems to have lost its way.

''Americans,'' said Mr. Motono, ''should have more confidence in their future. I have always said, once Americans realize their shortcomings, you will see a nation revitalized.''

At present, however, the shortcomings loom large, both to Americans and Japanese. The Japanese analysis of where the US stands today, though screened by courtesy, is tough-minded, sometimes unflattering, often blunt.

America is described as a great nation which appears to have lost confidence in itself and tends to transfer the blame to others - especially Japan - for failings within the US system itself.

''Too much criticism directed against Japan,'' said Mr. Motono in an interview, ''tends to obscure the basic reorientation of policies needed in the US.''

''The problem,'' said an economic specialist, ''is not that American workers cannot do what Japanese workers do. They can. But they must regain what you call the Protestant work ethic.''

In largely Buddhist Japan, a land teeming with the energy of an educated people striving to excel, the ''Protestant work ethic'' is very much alive.

''In Japan,'' said computer scientist Kazuhiro Fuchi, ''we are still very eager to produce the best TV sets or automobiles. You in the US have already done that and are looking beyond it.''

This is a polite way of saying that Americans no longer produce the best TV sets, automobiles, and a range of other goods.

As late as 1955, Japan had no automobile industry. When its now famous Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) ''targeted'' a car industry as essential for Japan, says high-ranking MITI official Toshihiko Tanabe, ''there was widespread doubt among Japanese that we could build cars at all.''

In 1960, he said, Japan turned out 160,000 passenger cars and an equal number of trucks and buses. Twenty-one years later, the 1981 output of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and others was 11 million vehicles, of which 7 million were cars.

Almost all Japanese leaders interviewed in government, industry, and academia paid tribute to the generosity of the US toward Japan after World War II. One called it ''a unique partnership between victor and vanquished.''

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