Uneasy Partners


Tokyo -- It's nothing new when U.S. and Japanese negotiators squabble over trade. But longtime observers are more nervous than usual. The reason: The relationship between the two countries is changing in fundamental ways.

"Americans and Japanese are frustrated," said Yukio Satoh, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's North American Bureau. "There is a decline in U.S. confidence and a rise in Japanese self-confidence. We are both searching for a new pattern of relations."

That search might be more accurately compared to groping in the dark. After the Cold War, common security concerns no longer compel both sides to compromise on their trade differences (although Japan still wants -- and pays for -- U.S. troops on its soil).

A new generation of Japanese bureaucrats and politicians (who may take power in July 18 elections) doesn't share its elders' sense of obligation to America for post-World War II generosity. This generation is more likely to speak out.

And the relative decline of the American economy has raised questions here about America's staying power as a world leader, while making Americans in Tokyo feel like paupers. With the yen rising constantly against the dollar, a short cab ride in Tokyo can cost $15 and a copy of the International Herald Tribune $5. Forget dinner.

Even more disconcerting is the condescending attitude of many Japanese who see themselves as America's friends. On a TV program about U.S.-Japanese relations 50 years after Pearl Harbor, the broadcaster, known as an expert on America, noted that the economies of the two countries were complementary.

"We have a lot of capital and technology and a shortage of land and labor," he explained. He went on to describe how the United States lacked capital and technology, but had plenty of cheap labor and land.

Welcome to Third World status in Tokyo. But such Japanese media impressions are important because they color what the Japanese public believes. On another TV show a prominent, pro-American, Japanese writer told viewers that Americans were hurting and Japanese had to help. He said Japan had been forced to buy U.S. semiconductors (a reference to the trade accord, much admired by Clinton trade negotiators, in which Japan agreed to open a 20 percent share of its market for U.S. semiconductor imports).

But he added, sincerely, that this was the kind of sacrifice that Japanese should make to help America, even though Japanese firms had to throw out all the semiconductors because they were defective. This statement was totally inaccurate.

Such popular misconceptions fuel Japanese public support for tough trade stands. On both sides, positions are colored by domestic concerns. Mr. Clinton campaigned on a pledge to cut trade imbalances, while in Japan, recent political turmoil makes trade concessions less likely.

But the lack of give on either side has deeper roots than domestic political pressures. Aware of their growing economic power and their decreasing dependence on U.S. mar- kets as their investment and exports to Asia rise, Japanese are pressing to be treated as equal partners.

"No" is the word heard most often in trade talks. The impasse revolves around the Clinton administration's demands that Japan agree to set numerical targets for cutting its overall trade surplus and -- possibly -- for granting American firms a share of specific markets, as in the semiconductor accord.

Japan said setting numerical targets amounted to "managed trade," meaning government interference in markets, which America has opposed when practiced by Japan. But a deeper problem may be that Japanese don't feel America is treating them with sufficient respect, and that they respect America less.

President Bush was seen as a beggar when he came to Tokyo with U.S. car manufacturers in tow. Mr. Clinton, at first viewed with enthusiasm as a deficit-cutter, is now seen as weak, and trying to offset domestic problems by bashing Japan.

And American businessmen here complain that the "in your face" style of President Clinton's chief trade negotiator, Mickey Kantor, has angered Japan without getting results. They, and Japanese officials, say no one knows who is making U.S. trade policy, or what President Clinton really wants. The key, say these businessmen, is that American negotiators must avoid public mud-slinging, and back tough talk with evidence that America can get its own economic house in order.

U.S. trade negotiators can demand concrete results, they say, and may even get them. But they must package their arguments carefully, in a way that Japanese will find palatable. Above all, they must be aware of how Japan and its attitudes have changed.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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