Dole in Tokyo gets cool response to call for trade action. But senator finds concern friction may hurt overall ties

``The time is past for gestures. Immediate action is needed,'' Senate majority leader Robert Dole said here yesterday. Senator Dole (R) of Kansas is leading a bipartisan Senate group seeking to impress politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen here of the need for ``a dramatic increase in American exports'' to Japan to reduce that country's enormous trade surplus with the United States.

The response so far has been less than overwhelming. It is not that businessmen and politicians here are unaware that ``the protectionist pot is about to boil over,'' Dole told a luncheon at the Japan National Press Club. The issue is that the Japanese seem resigned to living with surcharges and other protectionist measures imposed by an increasingly frustrated and angry US Congress.

``No matter what effort Japan makes to open its markets, there is no prospect of an early reduction in Japan's trade surplus with the US,'' said Dole's Japanese host at the press luncheon. The host then asked, ``If Japan takes action contrary to what the US desires, will the American people go back on their promise to defend Japan?''

``Absolutely not,'' Dole replied. ``We certainly don't want our trade problem to spill over into other areas.'' The fact that the question was asked indicates the degree of concern here that the emotions roused by trade frictions may indeed spill over into other areas and affect the fundamental alliance with the US. Thus, there is a growing mood in this country that in the short run Japan may have to stress damage limitation, while tackling more fundamental problems over the three-year period promised i n Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's ``action program.''

Some government sources have suggested that if the dollar remains strong, import surcharges may be the only way in which to reduce Japan's trade surplus with the US drastically.

Last year Japan exported $37 billion more to the United States than it imported.

This year the gap may widen to $50 billion, an imbalance that Dole said ``no other country in the world would tolerate.''

The problem with this approach is that it will do nothing to reduce the prevailing sentiment in Congress about Japan's ``unfairness'' -- the perception that Japan restricts its own market to American goods while Japanese goods enter the United States freely.

As Dole told one questioner, the port of Baltimore will clear 3,000 Japanese cars in 20 minutes while it takes one American car six hours to get through import procedures in Japan.

``That is not equity. That is not fairness,'' the senator said.

There is a rising feeling among Japanese political and economic observers that the most promising route to redress the trade imbalance is to stimulate domestic demand to open the door to increased imports. Politicians like Kiichi Miyazawa, Prime Minister Nakasone's chief rival in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, advocate a vigorous program of government spending in order to achieve this.

But even such a program cannot be expected to bring about the immediate results Congress seems to be looking for.

Dole concluded his remarks by ``reaffirming that the relationship between our countries is among the most important in the world. I appear here today as a friend, to candidly report the growing surge of congressional impatience which mirrors the frustration felt across America. I can assure you that you will witness strong congressional reaction unless prompt and dramatic corrective measures are instituted here.''

The Senate group has met with leading businessmen and expects to see Prime Minister Nakasone before departing Japan today.

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