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EDITOR’S NOTE - No more extra worry and risk of ulcer

April 8, 1992

EDITOR’S NOTE - No more extra worry and risk of ulcers for Satoru Sasaki, the new style of Japanese auto worker. When his shift is done, he leaves the factory and coaches a volleyball team.

Undated (AP) _ By SETH SUTEL Associated Press Writer

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) - Satoru Sasaki used to be under such pressure to make sure the truck engines were perfect that he worried about getting an ulcer, as several co-workers had.

Now he logs only about five hours of overtime a week at his job as engine inspector, half as much as five years ago, and leaves when his own work is done rather than waiting until the boss goes home.

Sasaki also passes up many of the traditional nights out drinking with his Mitsubishi Motors co-workers, leaving more time to spend with his wife and three daughters, play tennis and coach a volleyball team made up of housewives.

″My free time is very important to me,″ he said on the sideline of a volleyball match, keeping his eyes on the game. ″Having a sports match in the evening gives me something to look forward to.″

It wasn’t always this way. For most of his 25 years with the company, overtime, lack of sleep and pressure to perform were relentless.

″We had to put up with a lot of stress,″ he said. ″I was in bad shape, and some of my friends got ulcers. But now, I take better care of myself. In the last three years or so, it’s gotten much better.″

Sasaki, 43, said he and other employees are taking more of their vacation time, working fewer hours and changing their attitudes toward work.

″Working night and day is torture on the body,″ he said. ″We began to realize that we had our own lives to live, independent of the company.″

He still has gripes about his job, mainly the fast pace and having to work on some holidays, but bristles at the notion of switching to a rival company. Japanese workers sometimes are viewed abroad as the foot soldiers of a corporate invasion, but Sasaki said their sights are focused domestically.

″We think of ourselves as competing against other Japanese car makers, not with America,″ he said..

An important factor in making Japan a world economic power was that intense competition among companies to outdo each other with improved technology and production methods, particularly in autos and electronics.

The rivalry took its toll on Japanese workers, and on foreign competitors.

Company managers couldn’t have slowed the pace even if they had wanted to, for fear of losing market share. Now, however, foreign and domestic conditions are combining to create a consensus among Japanese that it is time, for everyone’s sake, to cool the competition.

Many Japanese, especially the young who didn’t go through the lean years of rebuilding after World War II, want to enjoy more of the nation’s wealth and work at more pleasant jobs with better schedules. Because of a labor shortage, more people can change jobs and refuse difficult or unpleasant work.

Japanese executives also realize resentment by the United States and other trading partners threatens their access to foreign markets.

As a result, auto makers are easing the competitive pace by extending the time between model changes. Rather than selling large numbers of cars at low prices, which means keeping payrolls and production systems lean, companies are focusing more on higher-priced cars with bigger markups.

″In the past, precedence generally was given to reducing costs and making production more efficient,″ said Tatsuo Kuriki, executive vice president for production at Mitsubishi.

″We’re trying to make working conditions on the line better, but there’s the problem of tough competition with other auto makers. It’s difficult to know what the tradeoff should be.″

Only three years ago, car makers ignored suggestions from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry that they reduce working hours and extend model cycles, ministry officials say. Now, the manufacturers are doing it on their own.

Some of the changes are welcomed by the young but resisted by the old guard.

Toyota recently began revamping its production system to make work more pleasant. A new plant in Tahara, western Japan, has such amenities as lounges, nice shower rooms and quieter working areas.

Toyota director Tadaaki Jagawa said the measures did not go over easily with older board members.

″The changes may seem wasteful,″ he said, ″but that’s the thinking of the older generation. Society is changing. We were poor and felt we couldn’t stop struggling or we’d lose it all.″

Speaking for a growing number of workers, Sasaki said:

″We feel like we’ve done our part. We keep working harder and harder for prosperity, but it still seems a way off. Most Japanese can’t even afford to buy a house.

″One day, we’ll get there. One day.″

End Adv for Wednesday AMs April 8

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