AWED IF NOT frightened by an economically expansionist Japan, many Americans may envision Japanese youth as classic overachievers, selfless high-tech samurai dedicated to propelling their nation toward world economic hegemony. But in reality, the new generation Japanese may prove even more self-centered -- and less work-oriented -- than their much maligned generational counterparts in the United States.

Although little noticed by most Westerners, this new generation has many older Japanese wondering if the very value system underlying their nation's economic ascendancy is already near collapse. Generational splits are not uncommon in advanced cultures, but Japanese now in their twenties and early thirties differ so much from preceeding generations that they are called -- and call themselves -- shinjinrui, or "the new race".

"The shinjinrui will change the structure of our society," predicts Akira Hase, a 49-year-old director at the Dentsu Institute of Human Studies, a leading social research institute set up by Japan's largest advertising agency. "They are so different from my generation as to really be called a different people."Gilded Youth Perhaps nowhere are the new attitudes more evident than in the erosion of the fabled work ethic and lifestyle of the conventional Japanese "salaryman." A survey of youngsters conducted by Japan's Life Insurance Culture Center in l986 sought to identify the top priorities for spending time. Nearly half identified individual pursuits -- such as exercising, pursuing personal hobbies or being with friends -- as their prime concern. Another 14 percent cited spending time with one's family. Only one in 10 favored working as a priority, while a scant 2 percent placed emphasis on contributing to society.

Another, more recent survey conducted by the Japanese prime minister's office reveals how such individualistic attitudes differ between generations. In 1988, nearly 45 percent of Japanese aged 20 to 25 regarded individual fulfillment as more important than the needs of society at large; only 35 percent put greater social concerns -- including their own jobs -- first. The percentages were reversed for Japanese over 50.

Such attitudes are commonplace even among the most conservative young Japanese. Superficially, Tomokazu Nakao, 23, appears the perfect company man, the exemplar picked out by management at Ishikawajima-Harima Industries to represent the new generation at the venerable engine manufacturer. Yet Nakao sees his generation developing personae more attuned to personal hobbies and desires than to societal pressures.

"We weigh a lot more the individual life -- much more than the older employee. The definition of a shinjinrui is to be different from everyone else, to do what you want," he says at his company's elegant Tokyo offices. "If a shinjinrui wants to change his job, he doesn't worry about how the change affects the company."

Nakao acknowledges that many older executives find such attitudes puzzling, even dangerous. But the sentiments of his generation -- and the labor shortage -- are so pervasive that Nakao believes companies will be forced to adjust. "Sometimes I myself feel they are too generous to shinjinrui," Nakao admits, a tiny smile breaking his impassive expression.

What is perhaps most terrifying to older executives is that young Japanese may already be less work-oriented and more self-oriented than their counterparts here in the United States. A survey conducted by The Institute for Human Studies at Dentsu, the world's largest advertising agency, for instance, asked people in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo about their "purpose for living."

Joel Kotkin, co-author of "The Third Century: America's Resurgence in the Asian Era," is an international fellow at Pepperdine University School of Business and Management and a senior fellow at the Center for the New West in Denver.

Only 51 percent of young Tokyoites cited work, compared to 57 percent of New Yorkers and 61 percent of Angelenos. At the same time, the new generation of Japanese seemed far more interested in la dolce vita than the supposedly decadent young Americans, with 76 percent of Tokyoites seeing the purpose of life as having lots of money and "a comfortable life," compared to 59 percent of New Yorkers and only 55 percent of Angelenos.

The attitudes of the youngest Japanese surveyed were particularly notable for cynicism and aversion to hard work. Only 23 percent of Tokyo shinjinrui surveyed placed priority on hard work -- far less than their U.S. counterparts. One reason: nearly three in five shinjinrui believe hard work and honesty do not "pay off" in their society. Among supposedly undermotivated and demoralized New Yorkers and Angelenos of similar age, the vast majority profess faith that these old virtues still work in our society.Is the West to Blame? Many older, traditional Japanese place much of the blame for the change among the new generation on Western, particularly American, influences. Sosuke Kato, who runs a small culinary academy in Niigata, in far northern Honshu, complains that his students, mostly from working-class families, lack the "Confucian values" that underlie the legendary Japanese virtues of loyalty, hard work and respect for elders.

"The young people today are getting the wrong information from the U.S.A.," complains the 63-year-old Kato. "Being lazy, having fun, enjoying life -- that these are good things and that to sweat and work are not trendy."

But others, like Denstu's Hase, see the shinjinrui as not the product of foreign influence but as a product of Japan's peculiar history and postwar development. Growing up amid the rubble of defeat, the current ruling class in Japan entered the workplace at the dawn of the nation's postwar economic ascendancy. Japanese value structure of the time placed the country first, then the company, the family and -- last -- the individual.

Quite a different hand has been dealt the shinjinrui, brought up in the growing affluence of 1970s and '80s. Western influence, along with the individualizing force of television and personal computers, have helped break down many old kinship values. Yet unlike America's "baby boom" youth rebellion of the '60s, the Japanese generation now in their twenties and early thirties is not protesting social injustice or war.

If they are reacting to anything, notes Mitsuko Shimomura, one of Japan's leading social commentators, it is to the social distortions that the frenetic postwar economic boom imposed on the Japanese family, particularly the single-minded work orientation among Japanese men. Deserted by their husbands, Japanese mothers, who traditionally shared parental duties with men, took solitary control over their youngsters.

"Unfortunately, the ever-present mother is not a myth," Shinomura says. "She's there all the time. It's too much! The mother not only focuses all her energy, but she vents all her frustration on the kids. She sticks to them day and night. Mothers use kids as a replacement for their husbands, who are always working. Because women have given up on their husbands, they treat their child like a lover -- especially if he is a boy."

The result, he believes, is a generation of "mother-obsessed neurotics" ill-equipped for the stresses of corporate life in an economic superpower and yearning for escape. In the workplace, they tend to be indifferent and passive, what one former manager at IBM Japan calls "the goldfish generation" because they have to be hand-fed everything.

"I notice that many of my {young} male colleagues can't make decisions. They're brilliant, they are enormously talented and well-educated; they just can't put it together and conduct their own lives," observes Shimomura. "They're so used to everything being handed to them before they ask, they can't even dig up a source or find an alternative if the person they ask for an interview says 'no.' They just give up and don't know what to do next."

The changes in Japanese are particularly evident in the Tokyo-based mass media. Koichi Yamamoto, a 27-year-old marketing division executive at Dentsu, points to the rise of popular magazines for male shinjinrui such as Men's Nonno, the male version of a long popular girl's magazine. Filled with pictures of delicate, even effeminate young men, Men's Nonno offers advice about how to dress, shop, even how to put on the right kind of makeup. Needless to say, contributing to Japan's technological and industrial supremacy is not exactly a major focus. The Unmaking of a Miracle? These new priorities and attitudes are already playing havoc with a Japanese workplace once renowned for such things as strict loyalty, lifetime employment and, above all, stability. Increasingly, many young Japanese work only part time. Such "freetors," as they are called in Japan, reject conventional jobs for the freedom of part-time work and today number roughly a half million in the generation under 34. By the next century, according to the government's economic planning agency, they could account for nearly one-third of the entire Japanese work force.

Even among the more conventional youngsters, the idea of spending one's career within a single company is losing its appeal. One key factor is the increasingly critical labor shortage, caused by a severe "baby bust" and an aging population.

In 1990 Japanese corporations made more than four job offers to every male college senior, with the number of openings growing at nearly three times the rate of potential new hires. The shortage of university-trained personnel, particularly in engineering and computer science, is most severe.

Under such conditions, job hopping has become increasingly acceptable for workers aware that their skills are in such short supply. A survey of students by the Economic Planning Agency, for instance, found only 15 percent planned to follow the traditional pattern of taking a job with a company after college and sticking with it for life. Among employees of small and medium-sized companies, people under 30 were found to be two to three times more willing to switch jobs than workers over 40.

This fear of losing recruits is particularly true in the manufacturing sector, which has been the critical force in the emergence of Japan and its Asian neighbors. Work in manufacturing is quite passe' among younger Japanese. A recent poll of career preference among college juniors taken last year by UPU Ltd., for instance, showed trade, media, banking, hotels and travel industries to be favorites; industry, including high-tech, was far down the list. In recent years roughly half the graduating class in computer science at Tokyo University took jobs in finance, real estate and other non-manufacturing pursuits.

"When college students go out for a job they want to avoid the 'three Ks' -- kiken (dangerous), kitsui (hard) and kitanai (messy) -- so the manufacturers have had a hard time," says Tadao Kiyonari, Professor of Economics at Tokyo's Hosei University and a longtime adviser to Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry. "These days even the NECs and the Fujitsus are getting avoided because the 'three Ks' are there."

To Kiyonari and many others of his generation, the dangers from such anti-industrial attitudes are manifold. Some Japanese manufacturers are seeking to counter the trend by massive investment in robotization. But, realizing that even an automated plant needs workers, many others are moving overseas, especially to Southeast Asia (Japanese trading companies, anticipating the lifting of the 15-year-old U.S. trade embargo, are now poised to move into Vietnam) and North America, where the industrial workforce is not only more plentiful, but seems more motivated.

"Here I feel unimportant. No one wants to work in a factory anymore. Everyone wants to work at a resort these days," complains Nobiyuki Hoshino, the founder of Kuron, a mid-sized electronics manufacturing firm in Niigata that recently built a new plant near Mexicali, Mexico. "But when I go to Mexico, I feel like I still am important and people appreciate me. These are clearly signs of some sort of decline."

Yet not everyone believes these changes are for the worse, either for Japan or the world. In its vision for the 1990s published this year, MITI called for creation of a "mellow society" for older people and such amenities as more generous dining spaces at home. Admittedly, in drafting their report MITI's authors hoped to allay growing foreign suspicion of the Japanese industrial dynamo. But as its society shifts from a singleminded obsession with industrial conquest, some Japanese look to a rebirth of other, older values, including the cultivation of the nation's cultural and family life.

Hiroshi Kato, one of Japan's leading venture capitalists and author of a recent book on the new generation's impact, is one of the optimists. Rather than foreshadowing a decline, he sees the shinjinrui as the beginning of the end of Japan as a nation of monomaniacal workaholics, producing 10 percent of the world's exports with two percent of its population.

In place of this much feared hyper-industrialized Japan, Kato foresees the emergence of a more well-rounded, affluent nation, transforming the world's most fearsome economic power to a "kinder, gentler" member of the international community. "We will become a normal country. A country that has accumulated money like England in the 1950s," Kato predicted, staring out at the squat Diet building outside his window. "The work ethic will be more normal, the savings rate more normal. Maybe the kids are telling us Japanese to enjoy happiness and home and the spending of money."

Joel Kotkin, co-author of "The Third Century: America's Resurgence in the Asian Era," is an International Fellow at Pepperdine University School of Business and Management and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the New West in Denver.