Japan officials scurry hither and yon to reduce trade, defense frictions

Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe is giving up a New Year holiday to rush off to Europe, in an attempt to defuse angry trade tensions with the European Community.

The hectic pace which lanky Mr. Abe and other members of the month-old Nakasone cabinet have maintained is an indication both of the new Japanese administration's style and of the real problems that are crowding in on it.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone himself will travel to Washington Jan. 17 for a summit with President Ronald Reagan. Trade frictions will be important in discussions there, as will defense.

Both in Europe and in the US, the perception seems to be growing that the Western nations are targets of a concentrated export offensive on Japan's part, while Japan's own market remains largely closed to imports. Repeated Japanese efforts to counter this mood so far have met with little success.

In the US, irritation over a trade imbalance combines with the perception that Japan is not pulling its weight in defense. (Japan's trade surplus with the US in 1982 is expected to near $20 billion.)

At a bureaucratic level, competent officials in the foreign, finance and international trade ministries have worked with great dedication to try to meet the most vehement of the American and West European complaints, while at the same time fending off powerful domestic lobbies - whether farmers, food processors, or drug manufacturers.

Thus, Mr. Abe is taking to Europe the news that tariffs on chocolate and biscuits are being reduced by 15 percent, and 10 percent for tobacco.

These are not measures that will make much of a public splash but they have been argued between bureaucrats for years and represent a concession by Japan, in the teeth of opposition from farmers.

In defense, officials are mobilizing the so-called ''defense tribe'' within the ruling Liberal Democratic party to restore cuts made by the finance ministry in the defense budget for 1983. The ministry approved only a 5.1 percent increase over 1981, whereas the agency wants a 7.3 percent rise. In dollar terms , the difference is not significant: the finance ministry approved $11.3 billion while defense officials want some $100 million more.

Within Japan, the argument over percentage points is ferocious, because the budget as a whole is going up by only 1.3 percent and welfare, education and other voter-oriented items have been cut to the bone.

But it is difficult to dramatize this kind of battle in the US or in Western Europe, where defense spending is proportionately higher and where the economic picture is gloomier than in Japan.

In an address to foreign correspondents in Tokyo Dec. 29, Mr. Abe spoke of the ''growing international recognition that Japan has developed into a force to be reckoned with,'' adding that ''Japan has also acquired far greater responsibilities in the international community than most (Japanese) people realize.''

But neither in his speech, nor in answers to questions from journalists, did Mr. Abe go beyond generalities.

Western Europe and the US are looking to Japan for dramatic measures. But the domestic political reality is that the Nakasone cabinet has little room for maneuver. The cumulative national deficit is reaching more than $41 billion. Tax revenues are down, yet it is not politically possible to raise taxes.

Next year's economic growth rate will be a skimpy 3.4 percent and even this official forecast is believed by many to be too optimistic.

So about all that Mr. Abe, as foreign policy spokesman for the Nakasone administration, can do at this point is to reiterate that Japan is aware of its international obligations but can make no large promises.

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