Prying open Japan's trade door

As most Western political and economic leaders would see it, opening up Japan's door to foreign commerce has always been a struggle. That has been true from the time of Commodore William Perry's expedition in 1854 right down to the present. Viewed in this historical context, Japan's decision last week to ease some 67 nontariff barriers as well as create a new Office of Trade Ombudsman to deal with overseas complaints can be welcomed in principle by its many trading partners.

What is important now is that Japan not only vigorously follow through on its promises but take even more meaningful steps to liberalize its trade practices. The fact is, Japan maintains huge trade surpluses with its allies. In the case of the US, for example, the surplus was $18 billion last year, surpassing the previous high of $13.5 billion in 1978.While final figures for 1981 are not yet available, Japan's 1980 surplus with Britain was a high $1.8 billion; with West Germany, $3.2 billion.

This imbalance needs rectifying. To make a significant shift in an economic system geared essentially to exports - as opposed to producing goods for domestic consumption - can only be beneficial to Japan's enterprising population by providing a greater variety of products for purchase and also helping to expand the world's trading system.

Specific judgment on the list of 67 changes made by Japan is still uncertain in Western nations, although there is a great deal of skepticism. Little progress was made, for example, in opening up Japan to overseas financial services and other service industries, such as insurance and construction. Most experts would concur with one Washington official who cautioned that ''proof of the utility of these steps cannot be measured at this time.'' The reason is that Japan has instituted such a complex maze of impediments. Besides formal tariff barriers, there are tough health, safety, and testing restrictions. Most impenetrable of all are the anti-import attitudes of lower-level trading officials, as well as commercial distribution systems based on family and business links worked out over generations. Changing these barriers will be particularly difficult, yet this must be done if Japan is ever to welcome goods from abroad.

The West, while correct in prodding Japan to open its markets, would also seem to be best served by being sensitive to that nation's unique historical challenge. As an island nation, the Japanese people must look abroad for energy supplies and raw materials. To buy such expensive commodities, they must export. Indeed, the very fact that Japan's export-oriented system has worked so well is proved by the nation's relatively low unemployment as well as high savings rate.

What must be avoided at all costs is an international trading war, with nations enacting protectionist measures to help ailing domestic industries. World economic leaders will have two major opportunities this year to assess the new changes made by Japan. An economic summit of seven major trading nations (including Japan) is scheduled for June, to be followed by a meeting of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in November. Between now and the June meeting Japanese officials would be well served by pressing ahead and opening up their island nation to as many goods from abroad as possible. The world would be the winner from such a far-sighted policy.

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