Tough sell to keep doors of world trade open

Growing differences of opinion are surfacing here over the American campaign to gain free access to the Japanese farm produce market.

Tokyo government officials entered talks with the United States in Hawaii last week ready to agree to the import of more American peanut butter and tomato ketchup, but determined to make no concessions on the major issue of liberalizing quotas on beef and orange imports.

When it became obvious that progress was impossible, the discussions abruptly ended a day early and no date was set for their resumption.

A high-ranking Agriculture Ministry official said the American demand was unreasonable, considering Japan already takes 15 percent of total US farm exports. In the past five years, Japanese imports have more than doubled, reaching $6.6 billion last year. Opening the floodgates to American beef and oranges would simply sweep away domestic farmers unable to compete on price due to lack of land and admittedly inefficient farming methods, he said.

The average Japanese consumer, upset that beef costs three times as much here as it does in New York, would certainly welcome import liberalization if it pushed down the crazy prices.

But, the ministry official said, free market entry under present circumstances is ''politically unacceptable.'' The ruling Liberal Democratic Party couldn't survive without the solid farm bloc vote. This is especially true now as the party comes in for heavy public criticism for a protracted leadership struggle that leaves the national economy drifting in limbo.

If the farmers can count on solid political support, they certainly are not getting much encouragement elsewhere. A leading newspaper, the Yomiuri, said, ''The time has come to study ways to liberalize orange imports. . . . As for beef, the quota should be doubled as a first step.''

The Mainichi newspaper declared: ''There is only one way to resolve the problem. Japan should promise to lift the quotas on the two items after a certain grace period. It is unrealistic to unconditionally reject any liberalization.''

Even the traditionally conservative Asahi newspaper, while saying complete liberalization would deal a deathblow to domestic beef and orange production, conceded, ''It would be internationally unacceptable for Japan, which thrives on trade, to maintain strong protectionist measures without any hope for change in the future.''

The major issue at stake, experts argue, is whether ''food policy'' is more important than overall ''agricultural policy.'' A former vice-minister of agriculture, Takekazu Ogawa, recently published a book, ''Can Japanese Agriculture Survive?'' in which he argued the various alternatives open to the government.

If food policy has a high priority, then it should be recognized that Japanese agriculture has lost its energy to develop, becoming burdensome to the national economy, and that it would be more economical to import more agricultural produce.

Or, the government can continue its present policy of inertia, attacking neither the issue of agricultural reform nor import liberalization. The first way will lead to a rapid collapse, the second to a more gradual decline of Japanese farming. Either is highly undesirable for the nation's survival, Ogawa wrote.

He urged a third alternative: drastic reform of farming practices, including collectivization or amalgamation of the present small, uneconomical units, in ''concord'' with the needs international trade.

Even the Agricultural Ministry concedes Japan's strong interest in the growth of international trade. But national strategic interests also dictate the need for more, not less, effort toward food self-sufficiency. In a new report, the nonprofit Agriculture Policy Research Committee - which has been studying the nation's food problems for more than 20 years - gently chides the US for its ''narrow attitude'' in the farm trade, however.

While the United States considers farm trade in terms of commercial gain or loss, Japan puts more emphasis on securing a stable supply of food in total, the report said. More attention is paid in Japan to overall development of US-Japan agricultural trade than increases or decreases in each specific commodity. The US should recognize the wider social and strategic issues involved, it added.

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