Japan and the United States. Mutual trading partners. Friends and allies. And aggressive business competitors. Does either nation have an inherent commercial advantage in sales and business acumen?
That question, and the long-term stakes in the US-Japanese trading relationship, stood out to us sharply a few days ago as two news stories crossed our desk. One said Japan had just announced a record trade surplus of $20 billion last year. But that wasn't all. Breaking down Tokyo's global trading patterns showed that Japan had an $18 billion trade surplus with the US.
The other article was an account in the Jan. 9 Fortune magazine about ''America's most admired corporations.'' Fortune polled over 7,000 corporate officials and financial analysts. Half responded. The results provide a remarkable look at how American industry perceives corporate excellence. The poll, looked at in regard to the US trade deficit with Japan, suggests that contrary to gloomsayers, many US firms are characterized by as much creative spark, innovativeness, and drive as they always have had. The challenge is inculcating that sense of excellence throughout the US business community.
Many of the reasons for US inability to sell abroad are political - involving international economic circumstances. The strength of the US dollar, for example , makes American goods more expensive than competitive products from abroad. And overseas trade barriers often inhibit the flow of US commerce. Still, some US firms have not been vigorous enough in setting the highest standards of excellence - emphasizing quality control, for example, as Japanese firms do.
Listen to what two executives of the top ten firms say about themselves: John R. Opel of IBM says his firm has ''a commitment to excellence and a commitment to customer service. The fundamental thing is that the people who work in the company make it a good company. That's really the secret; the people.'' With that attitude, is it any surprise that some Japanese firms are now copying IBM's developments in computers?
Warren H. Phillips of Dow Jones: ''Profit,'' he says, ''is not the No. 1 goal - it's serving the public. Profits come out of that. . . .''
At its best, the US business community has shown itself keenly interested in national and global developments. A Wall Street Journal/Gallup survey, for example, shows that US business executives agree that large budget deficits are the nation's most serious economic problem. (Ironically, they also overwhelmingly favor President Reagan's reelection, notwithstanding the deficits.) The point is that the US business community is economically sophisticated and outward looking. As Fortune clearly illustrates with its new roster of outstanding firms, there is no reason why US businesses cannot look deep within themselves to find the qualities of excellence that ensure economic reward - and overseas sales - despite the international obstacles.