In this series codrespondents for The Washington Post examine how middle-class families make ends meet in Western Europe and Japan and how their standard of living compares with that of middle class Americans.
In the Japan of only a few years ago, Hikoharu Kure and his wife, Motoko, would have stood out as extravagant spenders.
Those were the days of pinching pennies and nose-to-the-grindstone frugality, and a typical Japanese family like the Kures had no margin to afford the good life.
Today, they dine out two or three times a month as a family, and he enjoys several private dinners with friends. They take a two or three-week vacation at the seashore each year. His golfing and other sports cost the family $116 a month, and her hobbies of pottery weaving and metal working cost twice as much. Keeping their 11-year-old son in private school takes $1,628 each year.
They keep a sizable bank balance for emergencies but do not -- by deliberate choice -- bother with permanent savings. The future is not something Hikoharu Kure worries about. He is 40 and a man of many lively interests, and he believes in spending now on what his family wants.
It is a well-articulated philosophy. "I feel that a thousand yen now is equal to 10,000 yen for what I will want in my fifties," he says.
"Now I have energy and many interests. I can enjoy it more now. Some people want to save their money for their old age, but that is not my attitude."
An amiable and self-assured man of 40, Kure is the model Japanese government executive -- well-educated, hard-working, disciplined. A good student, he passed entrance exams with a score good enough to win admission to prestigious Tokyo University. His graduation there with a degree in political economy assured him a choice of the best jobs in government or private industry.
He chose the government and 15 years ago began a career with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), perhaps the most powerful agency. He was recently assigned to a key job as managing director of a ministry off-shoot, a public corporation that helps arrange loans for depressed industries, such as shipbuilding.
With the promotion went a substantial salary increase and, with the help of two large annual bonuses, Kure now takes home about $21,860 after taxes and social security deductions. He lives comfortably and is satisfied with his income.
"At first, when I had been with MITI for only a short time, I was disappointed because my friends in the banks and trading companies were earning 30 to 50 percent more," he recalls. But the years have brought raises and he has no complaints.
The American middle-class family of similar age and income would find the Kures' living quarters cramped. Their four-room apartment in the fashionable Shibuya section of Tokyo is small by U.S. standards but roomy by Japanese and is fitted with modern appliances. It is also the key to the Kures' material success and explains how they can live so comfortably on his income.
The government subsidizes almost all of the rent, a key fringe benefit begun in the early post-war years for government and industry executives when housing in Tokyo was hard to find. They pay only about $33 a month for rent. Without the subsidy, Kure estimates, "I would be paying 10 times that amount.
The major expense in the Kures' lives is the large sum laid out annually to educate their son -- $1,668 in private school fees and an additional $116 a month for special classes, called jukus , in piano, mathematics and swimming. It is an expense most Japanese middle-class families accept as normal. Many pile on two or three extra academic classes each week as the price of equipping their children with special tools needed to enter Tokyo or any other high-prestige national university.
Unlike many Japanese in his position, Kure does not spend his afterwork hours in bars with friends. Thus he avoids running up his bills that can amount to hundreds of dollars a month for other men. He spends about the same for dinners with friends or for evenings in the three intellectual discussion groups he prefers.
It is a comfortable life, lacking in some of the insecurities common in America. Like private industry, Japan's government assures workers of life-time employment. Kure will not lose his job unless he commits some unpardonable error. His income, when he returns to the ministry, will increase automatically as the years pass. He will be expected to retire in his mid-50s but it does not bother him. Kure expects to take another job, perhaps in business, a common path for one of his education and experience.
The good life of the Kures is far removed from the frugal, penny-pinching ways their parents' generation knew in post-war Japan. The rules then called for a minimum of leisure and the worker who took a full week's vacation each year was rare. Most of all that generation believed in regular savings and put aside money at a rate far above that of the rest of the world.
The new way of living has evolved from Japan's remarkable economic boom and from the sense of security that an almost assured income has bestowed on the middle class. With those changes has come a free-spending attitude toward daily living that might have shocked an older generation.
For the average Japanese, all this is reflected in many sharp changes in spending patterns. They travel more often and much farther to overseas tourist meccas, take longer, more expensive vacations at home, indulge in a much wider variety of home appliances -- stereos, television sets, electric pianos. And with the rapid appreciation of the yen in recent years, they are buying foreign goods at a remarkably increasing rate.
The family dinner out, once a luxury, is becoming commonplace and by government statistics is one of the fastest changing elements in Japan's consumer spending. High-income families go to Chinese and Western restaurants and the young and lower-class families eat Japanese noodles. American-style fast-food chains are among Japan's current high growth industries. Family expenses for dining out rose 14.4, 13, and 11.4 percent respectively in 1975, 1976 and 1977 and showed no signs of declining last year.
Part of the financial cushion that gives new affluence to middle-class families is provided by the working wife. In the past 10 years, according to Labor Ministry records, the number of working wives has increased by 68 percent. Most work only part time in classrooms, department stores and restaurants but the money they earn often provides the extras that go into comfortable living.
Motoko Kure is an example. Her hobbies are expensive and she spends an average of $233 each month buying materials for weaving and potting or taking classes. To pay her own way, she began working part time four years ago.
A penchant for putting away money for rainy days has been a Japanese trait ever since World War II. Their savings ratio is about 22 percent compared to the 6 percent ratio for Americans and 11 percent for the British, but the Japanese rate has fallen steadily since 1974, reflecting a lessening of fears over economic security.
Hikoharu Kure is representative. He manages to keep a bank balance of about $2,500 for emergencies but does not believe in building up savings for old age. Eight years ago, he received $9,300 from the sale of land and put most of it not in stocks or bonds but in a gold membership, a freely negotiable asset in Japan and his only sizable holding.
"Some would say that I am not sound because I do not save," Kure says with a slow smile that shows he had no regrets. "But I figure that in one's personal life consumption is a kind of investment. Now, if I left my son a lot of debts, I would be blamed, but I don't think I have to leave a lot of money to him if I educate him.And so I scatter my money for my wife and myself and I don't save."
These changing attitudes -- and the higher incomes to go with them -- have produced in a remarkably few years a sharp change in the way Japanese view themselves.
Polls show that since 1972, a steadily rising proportion of Japanese are satisfied with their lifestyles and their own ability to provide the comforts of new furniture, appliances, travels abroad and higher education. Their view of their places on the economic ladder has become increasingly rosy. One government poll shows that exactly half of Japanese families regarded themselves as upper middle class in 1978: Six years earlier, barely a third felt that way.
Much of it may be due to the relatively low rate of inflation in Japan, particularly since 1976 when the harsh effects of the 1973 oil shock began to wear off. Prices have been relatively stable for three years.
But the Japanese family puts a far higher share of its budget into food than does the American family.Last year, for example, beef cost three times in Tokyo what it cost in New York and chicken was twice as expensive. A rough international comparison compiled by the economic planning agency shows the Japanese family spending about a third of its income on food, while the American family spends about a fourth.
The Japanese family in a sense catches up with the American family by spending a far smaller proportion on the automobile. Long-distance commuting by automobile is comparatively rare in Japan, where almost every city offers excellent subway and train transportation.
The Kure family reflects this difference. It has not owned a car for several years and the family's total monthly transportation expenses amount to about $70.
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