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Japanese family life lags behind nation's economic achievements

The Japanese family is going through challenging times. A number of disquieting trends have become so apparent that the government's 27th annual white paper on national life this year for the first time took up family problems as its major theme.

Its conclusion: Japan is a world-ranking economic power, but the quality of national life is deplorably poor.

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The government report lamented changes in national values with the postwar material affluence increasingly matched by ''spiritual flabbiness'' and destruction of traditional Confucian underpinnings of society.

Only in rural areas does the extended family of several generations living under one roof continue to survive with a fairly strong sense of interdependence. Elsewhere, the family role has become increasingly diminished with many new problems emerging.

There has been a weakening of bonds among family members along with lack of communication, an increase in the number of divorces, growing family and school violence by juveniles, increased incidence of alcoholism, and drug addiction (especially among housewives). There is also a growing problem in caring for the elderly.

For men, typically, there is the anxiety of increasingly heavy finanical burdens, especially for housing. And job transfers exacerbate family splits. A government agency recently studied 1,111 men who received such transfers and found that more than half, with children in junior or senior high schools, went off to their new posts alone.

It said the main factors in not bringing the family along were differences in quality or educational requirements of schools in various areas and examination problems that made it necessary to leave the children behind.

Women face new stresses, too. A survey by the prime minister's office this year found 54 percent of women ''anxious and uneasy about their lives.'' Divorce rates are at an all-time high. Since World War II, women have become better educated (often with a university degree). Yet many feel discontented with their lot. The concept of women's equality has come very late to Japan and is still underdeveloped. More than half the nation's 30 million housewives work, many because household budgets have become increasingly tight, but a growing number do so out of a desire for freedom and a new life.

''The sad part is that society still hasn't prepared women for any other role than homemaker. No wonder many feel so cheated,'' said Yoshiko Ikeda, a mental hygiene expert at the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

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And what of the children? The government report complained they now ''lack a sense of public morality, are ill-mannered, prone to violence and crime, and have no interest in household chores.'' This is blamed largely on ''insufficient home discipline and lack of dialogue between parents and children. . . .''

To some experts the root of the problem is that after defeat in war in 1945, Japan rejected many of its traditional ''Confucian'' ways - the good with the bad - and took up what was thought to be superior Western ''democratic'' ways - again, the good with the bad.

Sociologists detect signs of a desire to revive the best features of prewar Japan. One example: emergence of ''jukus'' (prep schools) teaching nothing but old-fashioned discipline and good manners.

Surveying all these trends, the government report said the family had to be reinvigorated through stepped-up discipline, self-help and mutual asistance, and better upbringing. But, in conclusion, it said family life was a private affair and the government had no right to intervene.

A critical newspaper editorial countered: ''Since peace in the family has much to do with welfare and living environment, there is much the government can do.'' Among suggestions that are currently floating around:

* New economic, industrial, land use, and housing policies that encourage the present small ''U-turn'' trend of people returning from overcrowded major urban centers to their hometowns, where extended families can once more live together and support each other.

* Better government programs to assist and alleviate the burden on families caring for the sick and elderly.

* Lower taxes, increased social security benefits, and other economic measures to lighten the burden of household debt, along with new employment practices that give men more time with their families.

* Development of marriage and family counseling services, which hardly exist at present. In regard to marriage, a current trend is renewed reliance on ''arranged'' rather than ''haphazard love'' marriages to ensure greater lifelong compatibility, but with the aid of the latest computer and video technology rather than the old neighborhood matchmaker hawking a posed photograph.

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