TOKYO -- It was an ordinary day in the empire of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the most widely circulated daily newspaper in what used to be known as the free world.

At the word of a school bus accident in western Tokyo, Yomiuri Helicopter 127, one of six craft in the Yomiuri air fleet, took off from Haneda airport to inspect the damage.

In Sapporo, 28,000 fans watched the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular baseball team, beat the Chunichi Dragons. Hundreds of thousands more watched on Nippon Television, Yomiuri's affiliated network.

Thousands of Tokyoites were attending classes at Yomiuri technical colleges and Yomiuri culture centers. Still others played golf at the Yomiuri Country Club, one of six owned by the newspaper, or rode the roller coasters at Yomiuriland amusement park.

Across Japan and the world, meanwhile, in 368 domestic and 34 foreign bureaus, 3,600 reporters and editors carried out their daily tasks. Before the day ended, more than 14 million copies of the Yomiuri's morning and evening editions -- most subscribers get both -- would be printed in 15 plants across Japan, not counting those printed in Los Angeles and New York for overseas Japanese. By comparison, USA Today sells an average of 1.7 million copies each day.

The Yomiuri newspaper is a phenomenon beyond the imagination of the most ambitious U.S. press tycoon. In this megalopolis, one out of every two households subscribes to the Yomiuri; across Japan, the newspaper reaches one out of every four households. Moreover, the Yomiuri empire is a pillar of Japan's establishment, and its cultural life, in a way quite unlike any U.S. newspaper. The company sponsors museum exhibits, rock tours, international conferences, a symphony orchestra, golf tournaments and road races. It brings statesmen and Nobel Prize winners to Japan. It is sponsoring a three-year, satellite-aided search for Genghis Khan's grave in Mongolia.

The Yomiuri's reach, and those of several other national papers that also sell in the millions, reflects in part Japan's remarkable literacy. Almost all Japanese can read, and they do so voraciously, from comics to weighty tomes. Overall, Japan prints 584 newspapers per 1,000 people every day, compared with 268 in the United States. On the other hand, Americans own 828 television sets per 1,000 people, compared with 266 per 1,000 in Japan.

Japan also is geographically compact and socially less diverse than the United States. Although Yomiuri prints 110 distinct regional editions, they differ only in three local-news pages; the rest of the 32-page morning newspaper, including the front page, is the same all over Japan.

Critics charge that the Yomiuri's success both reflects and encourages a dangerous Japanese fondness for homogeneity.

"To have more than 10 million subscribers -- it means that to be in this nation is to think and be like everyone else," said Keiichi Katsura, a journalism professor at Tokyo University. "They're promoting conformity. I think it's frightening."

The Yomiuri's senior deputy managing editor, Yoshimasa Abe, put it differently, saying his newspaper has succeeded by "serving the needs of ordinary people." As Japan has grown wealthier and better educated, the Yomiuri's quality has improved too, he said.

"But the key to our success was that we didn't jump too high," Abe said. "We very prudently went along with the people, gradually raising our standards."

The Reporter's Day

It's 6:30 a.m. Tomoaki Kawauchi stumbles out of his apartment an hour's drive from Tokyo into a waiting black car flying a small Yomiuri flag above its left headlight. The chauffeur will take the 35-year-old political reporter to one of the offices of Michio Watanabe, the ruling party faction boss he covers, for his daily "morning raid."

The chauffeured car, one of about 400 the Yomiuri puts on Tokyo streets each day, is a nice perk, but it doesn't bespeak a life of luxury. Kawauchi, whose rumpled suit, loosened tie and shaggy black hair seem to spell "reporter," will spend the next 15 or 16 hours chasing politicians and feeding memos to his sub-editor. His day will end with the "night attack," when he and a dozen competing reporters descend on Watanabe's house for some background chat over whiskey and cigarettes. Kawauchi will return home by 1 a.m. Asked the ages of his two daughters, he hesitates and then answers, "Eight and 3, I think." He rarely sees them.

Kawauchi graduated from Tokyo University, Japan's most prestigious, and then passed a battery of exams and interviews to win a spot as a cub reporter. This year more than 1,000 seniors have applied for 60 entering positions. Most of those who are hired expect to spend their entire careers at the Yomiuri. They will have several days of company indoctrination at Yomiuriland, and then be sent to small bureaus for about five years of training. Kawauchi spent four in the Narita bureau, just north of Tokyo.

Now he is a junior member of an elite 11-man team -- only about 3 percent of the Yomiuri's reporters are female -- covering the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its factions. For the past year, Kawauchi has been assigned to Watanabe, a wisecracking, shrewd, good ol' boy of a former finance minister with designs on the prime minister's office. Kawauchi has seen Watanabe morning and night, traveled with him, exchanged gifts with him, drunk with him.

It is a system of blanket coverage that sparks criticism within Japan. The Yomiuri, as the biggest and one of the more conservative newspapers, often is most criticized.

"We live together with a news source, and if we live so close, it's natural we'll be sympathetic," said Hitoshi Matsumoto, head of the Yomiuri's LDP team and Kawauchi's direct boss. "In the worst case, a reporter will forget he represents Yomiuri and begin to think only what is good for the faction that he covers."

The veteran political correspondent also said that Japanese reporters function as "bees" in Tokyo's gossipy political world, carrying information to and fro. Prof. Katsura is sharply critical of this role.

"In Japan, reporters can be influential for what they don't write," he said. " 'When that politician did such-and-such, what I advised was this-and-that' -- I hear that all the time from political journalists I know."

But Matsumoto said that in Japanese journalism, as in business here, personal relationships of long standing are essential.

"This is a dilemma, a contradiction within ourselves," he said. "So we're always aware of it, and we try to make efforts to overcome it. We're struggling with this every day... . It's not easy, but it is possible to draw a line between politicians and reporters and still maintain that atmosphere of trust."

Late at night, Kawauchi lights another Caster cigarette as Watanabe expounds on his relationship with the press. Wearing a loose-fitting robe after his evening bath, Watanabe sits on the living room floor of his modest apartment, making sure his guests' glasses are filled as he talks.

Told that American politicians might object to opening their homes and liquor cabinets to a dozen reporters every night, Watanabe laughs and says, "Even I can't stand it." But then, more seriously, he says, "I try to spend as much time as possible with reporters, because I think it's important that they understand my true feelings... . Conversing after drinking, we tend to speak the truth. So we have an understanding never to write anything I say after we've drunk sake together."

Watanabe complains that he can't get to know young reporters as well as he used to. Sensitive to charges of toadying, the newspapers now rotate their correspondents every three years, instead of allowing them to spend careers with one faction boss.

He also complains that Japanese newspapers rarely break out of their pack.

"If one paper writes one article, there's no other paper that will take a different angle," he said. "It's because they are too big. They are driven by their sales policy."

'The God of Sales'

If Watanabe is right, then certainly the man in the driver's seat is Mitsuo Mutai, known inside Yomiuri as the "god of sales." Although the chairman of the privately owned Yomiuri is now 94, he continues to inspire fear and awe in his subordinates. "If he says left, we all turn left," one editor said.

A few months ago, when Mutai discovered an irregularity in the sales department, he lectured his top executives in a meeting that lasted from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., with no breaks for food, one executive recalled. Two years ago, asked to give brief remarks to the company's entering employees, he lectured for 90 minutes, undeterred when one recruit fainted midway through the inspirational address.

One of Mutai's disciples, Sales Promotion Manager Kohei Suzuki, summed up the chairman's philosophy this way: "Let's put as much effort into our sales network as we do into the quality of the newspaper itself."

Mutai has always coddled his exclusive sales agents, giving them high commissions and allowing them to keep the profits from any advertising inserts they could sell. In the 1960s, when the Yomiuri's headquarters were "shabby" and its reporters underpaid, its sales agents were the envy of the industry, Suzuki recalled.

In return, Mutai placed stringent demands on his delivery agents, some of which might surprise Americans used to scooping their newspapers out of the shrubbery. "You should visit every subscriber very frequently," Suzuki summarized. "You should be their friend. You should find their exact desire -- whether conscious or subconscious -- for the exact spot where their newspaper should be delivered each day."

That philosophy carried the Yomiuri from a position of "weak runner-up" 40 years ago, Suzuki recalled, to the No. 1 spot by 1978. Today, Asahi Shimbun is a close second with 12.9 million copies per day and Mainichi trails with 6.3 million, according to the Japan Newspaper Association.

As a result, the Yomiuri can charge about $300,000 for a full-page advertisement.

But attention to sales alone does not account for the Yomiuri's success, Abe said. The newspaper has boosted its quality and its international coverage rapidly in recent years; the Yomiuri sent a team of 17 to cover the Houston economic summit earlier this month. But it also still emphasizes accessibility to the common reader. Stories are short, type is large, local news articles name dozens of local citizens. The Yomiuri Giants are prominently featured, as are radio and television news.

"In that sense, Yomiuri's way has been to match how Japanese people are thinking," said Takemoto Iinuma, Yomiuri's foreign editor. "We have embraced so many people -- poor and rich, left and right, intellectuals and ordinary."