Japan finds rocky path in Europe over troublesome trade issues

Tokyo's latest drive to choke the flames of anti-Japanese trade protectionism in Europe has failed, although Japan hopes to head off similiar resentment in the United States later this month.

A diplomatic bid to placate its disgruntled European allies ended this week with Tokyo's foreign minister being told that Japan's trade policies are ''intolerable.''

That message was delivered to Shintaro Abe, Japan's foreign minister, in Paris. But at virtually every stopover during a week-long mission to major European capitals, Mr. Abe was told the same thing: While beleaguered European Community (EC) countries welcome recent gestures by Tokyo, much more needs to be done to avoid a bruising trade confrontation.

The just-ended tour of Belgium, Britain, West Germany, France, and Italy by Mr. Abe was seen by many involved as a dress-reshearsal for a visit to the US by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in mid-January.

In both cases, the Japanese are seeking to buy time from their allies and trading partners while the new Nakasone government strives to modify past economic practices that have generated considerable friction.

Abe told journalists during his stopover in Brussels that the swiftness of his mission symbolized the urgency and seriousness of the Japanese effort to head off a protectionist trade clash with both Europe and the US.

''In the intensifying severity of the international situation, it is more important than ever to have closer ties between Japan, Western Europe, and the United States,'' he said.

He told both the press and officials he met that Japan had undertaken three separate rounds of tariff cuts in the past year to meet Western demands to open its markets to imports. Efforts had also been made to respond to other protests by restraining shipments of Japanese motor vehicles, video cassette records, and television sets and tubes.

Mr. Abe added that while little more could be expected in the way of further Japanese tariff reductions, the Nakasone Cabinet would consider greater relaxation of other trade barriers at a meeting Jan. 13 just before the prime minister leaves for Washington and would also consider curtailing disruptive exports on a ''case-by-case'' basis.

But European leaders are deeply worried by at least a decade of annual multibillion-dollar trade deficits with Japan. And though they welcomed the recent moves by the Japanese government, they clearly indicated that these had to be followed by other actions to open sales opportunities for Western goods in Japan and to relax the unrelenting surge of Japanese exports competing with their hard-pressed industries. Officials here noted that all the tariff cuts announced by Japan in 1982 covered only about 10 percent of European exports and would do little to whittle the EC trade deficit estimated at $14 billion.

Abe's European tour is the latest episode amid a rising tide of clamor and consultation over Europe's chronic trade deficit with Tokyo. While the tone of these talks has been outwardly cordial and businesslike, there have been a number of moves recently by each side that threaten to undermine such efforts. Most of these have involved national or joint-European actions against Japan.

Probably the most spectacular has been the French government's maneuver to stem the flow of video cassette recorders into the country by requiring them to clear customs at the small inland Poitiers facility - a guaranteed bottleneck - rather than at a port.

EC foreign ministers in mid-December also decided to file a complaint before the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Geneva against Japanese import restrictions. They agreed also to increase the number of Japanese imports under surveillance, a move often designed as a prelude to imposing quotas, and asked Japan for ''tangible assurances'' it would restrain exports to Europe.

Individual officials and industries have also attacked Japanese trade practices.

British leaders have pressed Japan to invest in manufacturing facilities in Europe in such fields as automobiles and video cassette recorders, where they have made deep penetration in the European market.

Leading European video recorder manufacturers also asked EC authorities to investigate and move against what they alleged to be the unfair Japanese ''dumping'' of such products below costs on European markets.

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