US-Japan economic relations: learning how to live with frictions

A visitor gets the clear impression, after wide-ranging talks with Japanese leaders, that the United States and Japan are on the defensive about each other.

The Japanese feel that increasingly they are targets for growing American criticism about economic policies for which Japan cannot fairly be blamed.

Americans, on the other hand, haunted by self-doubts about their ability to compete with Japan, see US jobs sailing across the Pacific and out of sight.

This fuels two kinds of emotional and bitter charges by American trade union leaders and businessmen:

* Japan is accused of flooding the US market with its exports and at the same time restricting a reverse flow of American goods.

* Japan, Inc. - a consortium of government, banks, and industries - is said to ''target'' key areas of high technology for eventual world domination.

''Objectively speaking,'' says Jiro Tokuyama, executive director of the Nomura School of Advanced Management inUFquoteSome Japanese leaders criticize their government for yielding too slowly and in piecemeal fashion to US demands that Japan open its giant market.

Tokyo, ''Japanese government protection of the automobile and some other industries was overdone.'' But now, Mr. Tokuyama says, ''the US exaggerates the extent of Japanese government influence over industry.''

He cites the failure of the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to persuade Japan's fiercely competitive automobile manufacturers to amalgamate into two or three giant firms.

''It is true,'' says computer scientist Kazuhiro Fuchi, ''that Japanese government protection was excessive and lasted too long. But,'' he adds, ''MITI's policy of protecting industries is changing, away from protectionism.''

This may be so, but it is not changing enough to defuse the suspicions and competitive tensions that increasingly drive Japan and the US apart. ''Healthy competition should produce benefits for society in both countries,'' says Dr. Fuchi, ''but right now it is not working well, because of tensions and frictions.''

That comes from a man who, together with 40 of Japan's crack young scientists , is gazing far ahead along the road of the technological future. Dr. Fuchi heads the Institute for New Generation Computer Technology in Tokyo, a government-funded think tank that aims over the next decade to design a new kind of computer ''architecture'' - a supercomputer that ''reasons,'' using predicate logic.

An aroused Pentagon is galvanizing with a similar project for the United States. Whichever nation comes out ahead will have taken a giant step toward creating jobs for its people in decades to come.

Some Japanese leaders criticize their government for yielding too slowly and in piecemeal fashion to US demands that Japan open its giant market to a wider flow of imports.

Both Fuchi and Tokuyama claim that Japanese quotas on imported beef and oranges (a prime complaint by American farmers) should be eliminated over time. But they and other Japanese interviewed stress Japan's predicament - a nation of 120 million people is crowded into a country the size of California, only 14 percent of which is arable. Most of Japan's food, fuel, and raw materials must come from overseas.

Without vast and growing export markets, Japan's standard of living would tumble. This explains the nation's intense drive not only to export manufactured products, but also to outdo any competition around. ''We have to innovate (in) our industries faster than other countries,'' says Prof. Kazutoshi Kohshiro of Yokohama National University. ''Improving our technology,'' former foreign minister Saburo Okita says, ''is for Japan a matter of economic survival.'' Against this background, says Dr. Okita, ''Americans and Japanese must learn to live with frictions.''

But how to prevent those frictions from growing worse over time, since millions of future jobs in both countries will depend on progress in robotics and other frontiers of high technology - areas of the most intense competition?

Neither nation can expect major concessions from the other, as robots replace men in old industries and millions of displaced workers, plus waves of newcomers to the labor force, demand productive jobs.

''Only if Japanese and US high-tech companies find ways to cooperate can we solve the problem,'' says Mr. Tokuyama.

The alternative appears to be a road of deepening conflict, down which neither nation wants to go.

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