A breathtakingly bold proposal that Japan buy all the 17 million tons of American grain withheld from the soviet Union has been put forward by a group of modern economists here.
The economists, known as the Policy Planning Forum and co-chaired by professors Yasuyoshi Murakami of Tokyo University and Chikashi Moriguchi of Kyoto University, say their proposal offers a heaven-sent opportunity to increase world grain security, to assure Japan's own grain security, and to improve Japanese-American relations.
Conservative bureaucrats at the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry pooh- pooh the proposal as unrealistic. Foreign Ministry officials, more conscious of the need for bold foreign policy initiatives by Japan, are more supportive. But they are thinking in far more modest terms -- a token purchase by Japan of some 100,000 tons of grains, mainly to be used as aid for Afghan and Indo-Chinese refugees.
Nevertheless, the Policy Planning Forum's proposal has been given a fair amount of publicity here.
The Policy Planning Forum calculates that it will cost $2 billion to buy 15 to 17 million tons of American feedgrains. It suggests that the government could use some of Japan's more than $20 billion of foreign exchange reserves to purchase the grain. The grain would be financed through a special account. It would, in effect, be as if the government were holding a portion of its foreign exchange reserves in grain instead of in dollars.
Since Japan has nowhere near the storage space required for so vast a purchase, the economists suggest the grain be held in warehouses in the United States. Mindful of 1973, however, when the US suddenly imposed a temporary ban on soybean exports to Japan, the economists say that the essential condition for holding the grain in the United States is that it be freely exportable to Japan when and as required.
The Policy Planning Forum figures that it would cost $400 million a year to store the grain. Japan should look on this sum as part of its overall security cost, the forum says. It urges that, as a country without natural resources to speak of, Japan must look on security in terms far broader than traditional military security.
Washington, which constantly urges Japan to devote a larger share of its budget to defense, should understand that food storage costs are as legitimate a security cost as the purchase of military hardware, the forum maintains.
The Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry's main objections to the proposal are that Japan is already the United States' best customer for agricultural products; that grain purchases are planned on an annual basis; and that so large an additional purchase would have a severe effect on domestic prices, especially on rice, which is in perennial surplus and which the government must support at enormous cost.
At the same time there is growing public feeling that Japan's responses to both the Iran and Afghan crises have been timid and not befitting the nation's increasing weight and responsibility in world economic affairs.