Out of Japan: As a nation, comparatively self-obsessed

TOKYO - The story goes something like this: At an international convention on the elephant, a group of scientists agree over the dinner table to each write a book about the noble pachyderm, and to present the fruits of their labours at a similar forum in 12 months' time.

At the end of the year, the books are proudly laid out by their respective authors. The Englishman had penned a stirring work: Tales of the Elephant in darkest Africa. The German humbly offered The Elephant, a short Historical Note, in five volumes including footnotes. From the Italian came The Love Life of the Elephant. Keeping Elephants in your Backyard for Fun and Profit was produced by the American. And from Japan: How Elephants see the Japanese - a study in the Elephant-Japan perception gap.

In a rare moment of self- parody, a version of this story was recently printed in a Japanese newspaper, as a gloss to the nation's obsession with how it is viewed by other people. Newspapers and television stations never tire of publicising surveys on the differences between Japan and other countries.

Japan is constantly subjecting itself and the rest of the world to a cultural Geiger counter, and seems most happy when the readings establish what many Japanese take to be a self-evident truth: that as a people they are unique.

To paint a more detailed picture of precisely how different Japanese are, a fortnightly magazine, Da Capo, recently ran a special feature titled 'What is Japan's Status?', with 25 pages of surveys comparing Japan to other countries in everything from economic output to consumption of pornography and the price of bananas.

Japan emerges as number one in terms of working hours, commuting time, cost of living and consumption of pornography. But it lags in other areas: 17th in the number of Olympic gold medals and 14th in the number of Nobel Prizes.

Despite the trend towards shortening working hours in Japan, the average worker puts in 2,124 hours a year, compared to 1,953 hours in the US and just 1,598 in Germany. And worse again, the German layabout actually earns more than his hard-pressed Japanese counterpart. How, a Tokyoite might wonder, can the Germans get away with such luxury? After all, Germans consume 142.7 litres of beer per capita each year, compared to just 55.6 litres for a Japanese. Even the British drink less beer - 105.7 litres per capita - although they also get paid much less.

Nor does it pay to be a top entertainer in Japan. The highest-paid television entertainer in the US, according to Da Capo, is Bill Cosby, who pulled in 11.7tr yen last year ( pounds 66m). Compared to that, Japan's highest paid entertainer, Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, is almost on the breadline, with 340m yen ( pounds 1.94m).

And even if Britain has won 86 Nobel Prizes compared to Japan's seven, the difference in gross national product per capita is enormous: dollars 25,430 ( pounds 16,197) for Japan, compared to dollars 16,070 ( pounds 10,235) for Britain. What is more, bananas are cheaper in Tokyo than in London.

But still Japan has difficulties in striding forth on the world stage. Japanese politicians are inferior to Westerners in their appearance, height, linguistic ability and general performance, according to the magazine.

And what impact have individual Japanese had in the world? Very little, it would seem, from the results of another survey, published in last week's Yomiuri Shimbun, the nation's biggest circulation daily paper.

People in the US, UK, Germany and France were asked to name a famous Japanese. Nearly three-quarters of those polled could not name one single famous Japanese person. Of those who did, Emperor Hirohito was the most frequently mentioned, followed by John Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono. Many French respondents for some reason thought Mao Tse-tung was Japanese. Maybe the newspaper should have polled elephants to get their views.