Japanese Claims of Unique Earthquakes Rattle Trade Talks

JAPAN claims it has unique earthquakes and thus rejects demands for new building codes that would increase the imports of American wood products, say United States officials. ``This claim will come back to bite them,'' one US trade negotiator says.

One such apparently unique quake measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale jolted northern Japan early yesterday. No damage or casualties were immediately reported. The earthquake, which hit the main northern island of Hokkaido, was centered under the Pacific off the town of Kushiro.

Talks to open Japan's lumber market have stalled despite recent trade agreements on supercomputers, satellites, and other areas. Without a lumber settlement soon, Japan faces possible trade retaliation. In addition, it risks forcing the Bush administration to pursue a ``managed trade'' policy.

The US has asked for sweeping changes in Japan's construction standards that it claims protect Japanese industry and discriminate against foreign wood products.

But Japan counters that to use more wood and American-type construction standards in its homes and buildings would not meet their concerns about fire prevention and resistance to the country's allegedly peculiar earthquakes. Many building standards were set after a 1923 quake that leveled much of Tokyo.

The US side says other countries have had more destructive earthquakes than Japan.

And US officials maintain that modern wood construction often performs better than cement or steel in lessening quake damage for low buildings.

If Japan accepts all the US demands, the American lumber industry estimates it can gain $2 billion more in sales and create 17,000 to 20,000 jobs in the US.

US officials say the talks have stalled due to a standoff between two Japanese bureaucracies and because many top Japanese politicians are closely tied to the construction industry.

Another round of lumber talks began this week, the seventh in nine months. Negotiators face an official mid-June deadline to reach a deal.

But a deadlock could influence a US decision, due by April 30, on whether to cite Japan again for specific ``unfair'' trade practices.

The earthquake claim is similar to a past statements by Japanese officials. These officials recently asserted that foreign skis were not suitable for Japan's ``unique'' snow.

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