Plywood industry grumbles over Japanese trade barriers

The plywood industry in the West is turning the heat on Japan over trade barriers.

The issue is a classis example of the grievances that some United States industries have against Japan - their products are competitive in world markets but essentially barred from Japan.

In 1981, for example, the American plywood industry sold about 5 million square feet of plywood to Japan, about a quarter of that sold to the Caribbean and much less than the 132 million square feet sold to Britain. The Western plywood industry has been trying to sell structural plywood to Japan for a number of years without much success, but in recent years, the Japan market has taken a backseat to pursuit of the lucrative European market.

Now the focus is back on Japan for the simple reason that it fits neatly into the Reagan administration's current trade offensive.

''The government is making a strong issue out of trade . . . and we feel we have a definite grievance,'' said Hugh Love, a spokesman for the American Plywood Association here.

The association recently fired a broadside at Japanese trade barriers for plywood, accusing them of ''more than 18 years of foot-dragging'' in discussions over acceptance of US construction-grade plywood. Recently, a policy committee of the National Forest Products Association urged the government to file a formal complaint against Japan under the International Standards Code of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs.

Two principal trade barriers prevent large sales of American (and Canadian) plywood to Japan: a 15 percent tariff and lack of mutually acceptable standards on structural plywood.

Some say that Japan had agreed to a mutual standard in 1980 as a result of the 1978 Multilateral Trade Negotiations session. The Japanese, however, contend they only agreed to discuss these standards.

Since the first of the year, the Japanese have made what appear to be important concessions on plywood. Among the 67 non-tariff barriers they said they would eliminate under pressure from the US was a proposal to revise plywood standards.

An official for the US Trade Representatives Office, just back from Tokyo, also confirmed Japan has agreed to mutual standards. ''The only question is when ,'' he says. ''If you believe them when they say yes, then the issue is resolved.'' However, he acknowledges there is considerable skepticism about this in the industry.

Even if formal trade barriers are eliminated, the industry still faces marketing barriers in selling plywood to Japan.

This is because the Japanese use a 3 by 6 foot plywood panel in their housing construction industry instead of the 4 by 8 foot panels preferred in this country.

Industry observers believe that relaxation of the formal trade barriers would encourage industry to make the necessary investments and mill adjustments needed to meet the Japanese demand, just as lumber mills are making the adjustments necessary to sell Japan lumber.

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