Last month the first trial shipment of Western soda ash, a mineral used in making glass, steel, and chemicals, left the Port of Longview, Wash., for Japan. This event, though prosaic in itself and largely unheralded, was a significant statement about the state of trade relations between Japan and the United States.
For the two nations, the past 18 months has been a tense and frustrating time. Americans have talked about Japanese intransigence on imports of citrus, beef, aluminum bats, and cigarettes - all within a context of threats of protectionism.
These problems are real enough, but there has been progress in some trade areas. A case in point is soda ash, which has been a minor but vexing issue between Japan and the US.
The mineral is mined in Wyoming and can be shipped to Japan inexpensively. But for years its use in Japan has been controlled by a cartel of companies that produced it through synthetic means.
Under pressure from the US government, the Japanese Fair Trade Commission is investigating whether the cartel has violated antitrust laws. At the same time, American producers have arranged to sell soda ash to Japan through two Japanese trading companies that are not a part of the cartel.
They have also arranged to open a receiving port in Japan not controlled by the Japanese producers, which, US trade officials say, had been charging exorbitant unloading fees.
Meanwhile, last summer the Port of Longview opened the West Coast's first export terminal especially for soda ash, helping allay Japanese concerns about inadequate port facilities for the commodity.
The upshot is that soda ash from the US will be sold in Japan for about 10 percent less than the cartel's price, and exports are expected to double quickly , to more than 100,000 tons a year.
There are other examples of progress being made in resolving some important trade issues between the two countries:
* This month United Airlines began making daily flights from Seattle and Portland to Tokyo because a longstanding civil aviation dispute between Japan and the US came to at least a temporary halt last June with the signing of a three-year interim agreement.
By allowing United access to Japan and expanding charter flights, the agreement brought to an end what was developing into a nasty situation that could have brought all flights between the two countries to a halt.
* Also last spring the Japanese government approved lower fumigation temperatures for cherry imports, thus ending a source of frustration for cherry exporters in the Pacific Northwest.
A few years earlier, Japan had agreed to allow cherries to be imported into the country, but the fumigation standards imposed by Japan had made it difficult for growers to send the quality of product demanded by Japanese customers.
It took some doing, but the industry managed to convince Japanese authorities that fumigation at lower temperatures was just as effective in killing insects, while preserving the quality of the fruit.
* Several building code changes were made in Japan last year which could help boost use of 2 X 4 frame houses in Japan, and thus boost sales of American lumber.
The changes include approval of three-story houses using frame construction, government recognition of wood framers in vocational training programs, and authorization for government loans for town houses made of lumber, in addition to concrete.
Also, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries is expected to issue new standards for softwood plywood that incorporate US specifications for bending strength and checking a fungus disease called ''white speck.''
Approval of the new standards clears up the last technical barriers preventing shipment of US-made plywood to Japan. (There are other barriers, including a 15 percent tariff and a mismatch of sizes between American and Japanese plywood panels.)
Despite progress in reducing Japanese trade barriers on wood products, there is still a lot of unfinished business, which is why the National Forest Products Association is making reduction of Japanese tariff and nontariff barriers on wood products a top goal this year.
The association recently hired a Washington, D.C., law firm experienced in working to reduce Japanese trade barriers, to assist with the tariff reduction campaign.
The association also issued a white paper which says that further reduction of Japanese tariffs on forest products would result in an additional $1 billion worth of wood exports to Japan a year.