Hang Up The Help-Wanted Sign

After the workers at Tokyo's Yamazaki Mazak Corp. go home each night, the small machine-tool manufacturer doesn't close--it runs a night shift staffed by robots. In sushi kitchens across town, metal-fingered chefs turn out delicate pieces of nigiri, while tougher automatons paint, plaster and install windowpanes in high-rise construction projects. Japan counts one robot for every 704 of its citizens. (America's ratio is one tenth that.) Necessity is the mother of this heavy-metal work force. There simply are not enough Japanese to do Japan's work.

Most world leaders would kill for the kind of healthy and expanding economy that results in chronic labor shortages. But Japan's rapid industrial growth, aging work force and striking 27 percent decline in the birth rate since 1966 threaten its highly regimented social order. For the first time in the postwar era, employees have started to job hop in midcareer, breaking the time-honored tradition of lifelong corporate commitment. Increasingly, small and medium-size companies can't handle the crisis. So far this year, 51 companies have folded for lack of staff-more than double last year's pace of labor-related bankruptcies.

Automation is only one answer. Though Japanese companies poured-$300 million into new industrial robots last year and will probably increase that to $8.6 billion per year by 1996, other solutions must be found for jobs that still require a human hand. Women offer some hope. Though traditionally blocked from the work force and encouraged to stay at home, women now make up 40 percent of all workers. Yet resistance to their participation is still strong. Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto recently was reported to have complained in a cabinet meeting that educated women aren't staying home having babies. Hashimoto later denied making that comment, but it reflected a still common attitude and underscored how long it will take before Japanese women are fully integrated into the work force.

Foreigners could also ease the crisis. But, again, their role is deeply controversial. Many Japanese recognize that impoverished foreigners are willing to do the "dirty, dangerous and difficult" jobs that Japanese themselves no longer will perform: labor analysts estimate that 110,000 illegal aliens took up the slack in construction projects, machine shops and cast-iron furnaces last year. Yet instead of welcoming such workers, the Japanese government has tightened immigration policy. South Americans of Japanese ancestry are allowed to work in Japan for three years, but companies employing illegal aliens now face fines if caught.

The labor crunch is more than inconvenient. "If we had abundant labor," complained Masaru Akagi, an economist at the Fuji Research Institute, "the economy would be growing even more rapidly than it is." Instead, since wages are being forced up by the laws of supply and demand, inflation is a very real threat. Some economists believe the series of interest-rate hikes earlier this year reflected the Bank of Japan's concern that wage gains would outstrip gains in productivity--a guaranteed spark for inflation. With unemployment at a minimal 2.1 percent, employers now must compete for workers.

Courting workers: Competition has led to various inducements. Dismayed managers of Japan's Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises developed a unique strategy for attracting qualified help, offering new hires a trip to Hawaii. The deal: part-time workers get to go as a reward for good performance after they have been on the job for several months. Even the police have had to react. After the National Police Agency noted a 20 percent drop in the number of people taking their exam, it considered softening life in the barracks by increasing the size of dormitory rooms.

Older, already retired workers are being courted, too. Japan's population is aging faster than any other industrial society's. Today, Japanese over the age of 65 make up 11.6 percent of the population. In 25 years that number should double, according to Japan's Ministry of Welfare. With the highest life expectancy in the world--80--and the customary retirement age still stuck at 60, millions of Japanese are ready and eager for a second career. Tokyo's Blue Co. Ltd. is now tapping that market. The average age of the company's drivers is 67, and the eldest among them is 78.

It is the youngest workers who benefit most, however. University seniors are relentlessly courted by prospective employers. Aoyama University senior Naohiko Sugimura has been literally swamped with requests for his services. Seated in his cramped dorm room recently, he pointed to stacks of mail from desperate employers and a pile of 10 videotapes extolling the virtues of different firms. That embarrassment of opportunity is becoming increasingly common, as is the demand for more free time. "The first thing" job applicants ask, said an official of Japan's beer distributors' association, "is how many days off they can take." Robots, of course, are less demanding. But there aren't enough of them to go around either.