US vs. Japan firms: prosecution or persecution?

Is the United States out ''to get'' Japan?

Many Japanese think so. And it is certainly the way much of the Japanese press portrays the events of the past few weeks.

''The US government is picking on Japanese enterprises to drive them out of the international arena,'' is the way recent US legal actions like the IBM espionage case are being presented.

At the same time, however, the Japanese are making efforts to boost investment - and jobs - in the US.

Much is being made of an announcement that Japan's No. 2 steelmaker, Nippon Kokan, is negotiating to take over Ford Motor Company's steelmaking division. Then there is the announcement that the first Japanese car assembly plant in the US - the Marysville, Ohio, factory of Honda Motor Company Ltd. - will start up in August, with monthly production expanding to 6,000 cars by early 1983.

This comes at a time when the No. 1 Japanese automaker, Toyota, is negotiating with General Motors on joint car production in the US, and Nissan is pushing ahead with its truck-building plant in Tennessee.

Nonetheless, it has been a bad few weeks for the Japanese business world.

First, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation found themselves caught by an FBI ''sting'' operation and accused of trying to ship stolen secret data about International Business Machines's latest computers back to Japan.

Then, a top trading company, Mitsui U.S.A., was charged with ''dumping'' steel in the US at prices well below permitted levels. To avoid a long drawn-out legal battle, Mitsui last week made an out-of-court settlement through plea bargaining.

Finally, the Justice Department confirmed this week that it is investigating allegations that six Japanese semiconductor manufacturers colluded to fix prices or limit the supply of computer memory chips shipped to the United States.

In Tokyo financial circles it is being asked: If the Americans really are targeting Japanese firms, who will be next? No one doing business in the US is immune.

Says Takeo Hirayabashi, senior official of Maruman Securities Company: ''The series of American crackdowns on Japanese companies is not coincidental. They can be regarded as a reflection of American jitters at Japan's export drive and high-technology offensive and American frustration at failure to settle the trade dispute.''

The conspiracy theory is most active in the IBM case. A good number of Japanese are now ready to believe that Hitachi, not IBM, is the real victim.

Their thesis is that the Hitachi employees named in the US court indictment were deliberately chosen because they are most closely involved in the company's next generation computer research and development. If they could be neutralized through legal action, Hitachi's challenge to IBM would suffer a major setback.

But a Japan Times editorial challenged this thinking. The predominant image from recent developments, it said, was that Japanese companies had failed to understand the cultural environment in which they operated, especially the judiciary system.

But industry analysts say there is no doubt US-Japan tension is mounting in the field of computers. For instance, cutthroat competition is predicted in the field of ''super computers'' now dominated by the US - specifically Cray Research Inc.

At recent bilateral talks, a US delegation complained that Japan had only imported two such computers and pressed for Japan to import more. Japan rejected this, saying the market was still very small.

However, three Japanese companies - Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Nippon Electric Company Ltd. - are now marketing or will soon market competing systems that can process more data faster than current Cray computers. They expect to dominate the world market within five years.

Another area where the Japanese think America is picking on them is President Reagan's tough stance against Japanese and European cooperation with Russian gas and oil development projects. Tokyo officials are currently drafting yet another protest to Washington, arguing that the US is working against Japan's national interest and is violating international laws.

Then there is the defense issue. For example, on the day Japan announced a five-year $17.4 billion shopping list for military hardware (some to be bought from the US), which officials said would drastically increase the nation's defense capability, the Pentagon issued a direct attack on Japan for its failure in this regard.

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