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AGING OF POPULATION COULD MEAN BUMPY ECONOMIC RIDE FOR JAPAN

SHARE AGING OF POPULATION COULD MEAN BUMPY ECONOMIC RIDE FOR JAPAN

The hints are growing that a decline is in the divine wind from the Land of the Rising Sun.

In a recent Japanese Cabinet meeting, grave concern was expressed over Japan's declining birthrate. Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto reportedly told his fellow ministers that Japanese women were getting too much education and bearing too few children.His fears stemmed from the Westernization of Japanese women's attitudes and from Japan's declining birthrate. Today Japan has one of the world's lowest birthrates, averaging 1.6 children per household. The proportion of their population under 20, which currently stands at less than 20 percent, is shrinking steadily.

People over 65 now make up 11 percent of Japan's population, and that percentage is expected to double within a decade. Japan has all the earmarks of profound labor shortages, rising wage costs and an inability to pay for future social services.

The Japanese concept of treating women as anything but equal economic producers seems very archaic to us to say the least. And, it is putting the Japanese ruling class in direct opposition to their own people - a situation that must breed change.

Meanwhile, Japanese rice farmers vehemently protested a planned opening up of the rice market to imports. Currently, Japan bans all rice imports, subsidizing its national crop. Other nations have long criticized Japan for this closed door policy, but now - with rice prices 600 percent higher than the world average - Japanese consumers and politicians are complaining.

Then there is tall Texan T. Boone Pickens. He continues to be a big burr under Japan's saddle, as the largest shareholder in Koito Manufacturing, Japan's largest auto parts maker. Even though Pickens failed in yet another attempt to gain representation on the board of directors at the latest shareholders meeting two weeks ago, he vowed to be back.

Pickens knows he is up against a national corporate structure that is closed to foreigners. So in the face of his questions being ignored by the board and being constantly shouted down by uncontrolled Japanese hecklers, he stormed out of the meeting and took his case to the media, labeling the Koito board's action as a farce.

"It is inconceivable that if Pickens owns 26 percent of that broad-based company that he would not get representation on the board. In this country he absolutely would, even if he were Japanese," said Francis Fraenkel, president of Salomon Brothers Asset Management, a major Wall Street money management firm.

Koito's board doesn't want to give up any authority, not to mention control, of a Japanese company to a foreigner in general and Pickens in particular. Yet, the Japanese want the right to buy companies here without any hindrance.

In May, Japan's current account surplus dove 58 percent from a year ago and 27 percent from a month ago. Since 1989, Japan has had trade deficits with France, Italy and Britain. And, without their U.S. trade surpluses Japan would have been a net importer, not an exporter.

Japanese exports in May were down to $21.1 billion from $21.4 billion a year ago. Imports by Japan soared to $18.49 billion, up from $16.2 billion 12 months ago. Imports have been on the rise for a year.

U.S. interest rates are diving. The mere mention of the word taxes by President Bush two weeks ago caused the bond market to rally in breathless anticipation of lower interest rates and a possible budget-deficit deal.

Fueling the fire was the drop in the Federal funds rate to 8.0 percent, a quarter point below the Fed's seeming slow-inflation target rate.

Reader questions will be answered and may appear in this column, when mailed to Gary S. Meyers, 308 W. Erie, Suite 300, Chicago, IL 60610.