Another window into the Japanese business psyche.

An essay on youth -- unlikely as this may sound -- is the underpinning of much Japanese productivity. And even more essentially, it's the basis of many businessmen's life philosophies.

"Anyone worth his salt in Japanese business knows and uses this poem," says one long-time Japan observer. "It is our spinach of Popeye," says a top Japanese executive.

The poem/essay is considered so galvanizing that the new chairman of the Pittsburgh-based National Steel points to its essence as the key to doubling corporate profits in the '90s.

"It touches me at the core of my heart," says Kokichi Hagiwara. It also is at the core of his plans for the growth of National Steel, the fifth largest U.S. steel maker.

"This kind of enthusiasm should be necessary, indispensable," the 66-year-old chairman told the Pittsburgh Press. "We must have the spirit of youth to make change."

Hagiwara is serious about the importance of the poem's message, as are legions of other Japanese leaders, many of whom carry creased copies in their wallets. A phenomenon -- and wait, there's more -- not easy for the Western mind to grasp.

Some Japanese leaders even look to the poem, written about 80 years ago by an American businessman, as a possible bridge between the two cultures. If Americans can understand Japanese reverence for the poem, they say, maybe Americans can better understand the contemporary Japanese businessmen's quest for spiritual sustenance in the midst of material abundance.

How did I get involved in all of this? Some months ago I included in this column a version of the "Youth" poem from a runners' newsletter. I had never heard of the author, one Samuel Ullman, and it seemed no one else had either.

Then I got a call from Richard Ullman Rosenfield, a Burke-based clinical psychologist. He told me that Samuel Ullman was his great grandfather and that he and other members of the family long had been intrigued -- and not a little incredulous -- with "the spiritual journey" of his writing, especially in Japan, given the man's relative obscurity in his own country.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur often quoted Ullman's "Youth" poem anonymously and always kept a framed copy of the piece over his desk wherever it was, even throughout the campaign in the Pacific. It's believed that the Japanese power structure picked up the work from MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters.

When one of Ullman's grandsons, Jonas A. Rosenfield Jr. of California, was having dinner in Japan a few years ago, the "Youth" poem came up in conversation.

Rosenfield told his dinner companion, a Japanese business leader, that the author was his grandfather. The news was staggering.

" 'You are the grandson of Samuel Ullman?' he kept repeating," says Rosenfield, head of the American Film Marketing Association. "He couldn't get over it, as if we were talking about the Messiah or something."

And then the executive brought forth from his pocket a copy of the "Youth" poem and told Rosenfield, " 'I carry it with me always.' "

The Japanese regard for the work is well-documented on a videotape of a remarkable round of tributes to Ullman three years ago in Tokyo and Osaka. Several hundred top businessmen and government leaders gathered in each city for one reason: to acknowledge and celebrate their admiration of his poem.

The toasts and testimonials abounded, including one from the founder of Panasonic Corp. who said Ullman's "Youth" has been his "motto" for 20 years and, "I'm still keeping it by my side."

There even was a special musical rendition of "Youth," composed and performed by a guitarist for the occasion.

"The Japanese are looking for something spiritual instead of material abundance which has resulted from their efforts," Tatsuro Ishida, a senior officer of Fujisankei Group, which owns Fuji Television, among other corporations, says on the tape.

"Now an American poem comes as a savior to give lots of people a helping hand. Encouraged by this poem they may age in good shape bodily and spiritually," says Ishida, also chairman of the Japanese Video Association and head of the Tokyo International Film Festival.

"I imagine that this campaign for praising Ullman on the grass-roots level in Japan may help Americans better understand the mental structure of Japanese."

At one point in the video someone asks why Japanese businessmen like "Youth" so much. The rejoinder: "How come Americans don't love the poem as much as we do? It sends a message to people -- how to live beautifully as men and women, old and young alike."

Among special guests at the festivities were grandsons Jonas Rosenfield, 75, and Mayer Ullman Newfield, 85, a Birmingham attorney. Their grandfather's words have not been lost on them: Both roundly defy their age in enthusiasm and intellect. And both still are working.

As the homages to Ullman wound down, participants were sent home with a kind of benediction, something like (the translations are not always clear), "back to the battlegrounds of everyday life, etched in your hearts a gathering under the banner of a poem called 'Youth.' "

Samuel Ullman, who should never be Anon. again, was born in 1840 in Alsace and came to this country as a boy. He fought in the Civil War and settled in Birmingham, where a high school is named after him. He was known as a merchant (hardware) with a penchant for public service that hasn't stopped yet, 66 years after his death. In the last couple of years at least $50,000 from his poetry -- Japanese royalties on a book and a cassette reading of his work -- has gone to a University of Alabama scholarship fund.

Not bad for a man who started writing poetry in his seventies.

And now for Samuel Ullman's gift, his full version of "Youth," so treasured in Japan:

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

Youth means the temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of 60 more than a boy of 20. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

Whether 60 or 16, there is in every human being's heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what's next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at 20, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at 80.