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Japan to Take Tough Opening Stance in Trade Talks With U.S.

By Paul Blustein
The Washington Post

TOKYO

Here is what Japanese government officials will say at their first major trade negotiations with the Clinton administration: There can be "no discussions" of the U.S. side's central demand that Tokyo achieve specific targets for the importation of foreign products.

That is the message of an internal Japanese government document, which stakes out a tough opening position for talks on creating a new "framework" for resolving U.S.-Japan trade problems.

Foreign Ministry officials, who furnished the document Thursday night to a small group of American reporters, said it represents the consensus within the government of what Japan must say at the negotiations, which are scheduled to begin early next month in Washington.

The government document shows that Japanese negotiators intend to take an uncompromising position at the outset, raising the prospect that U.S.-Japan relations will become particularly strained over the next several months.

Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and other officials have warned that Tokyo will resist the approach apparently favored by the administration, in which Japan would increase its imports by agreeing to set government-mandated targets.

"Managed-trade approaches will be precluded," the document states in setting forth the underlying principles Japan feels must be understood at the outset of the talks. "In this regard, no discussions will be made for the purpose of setting a numerical target" for imports of specific products or the reduction of Japan's huge trade surplus.

With striking bravado, the Foreign Ministry officials said they fear U.S. trade sanctions against Japanese products significantly less than they used to.

One senior official said that in the past, Japan has bent to U.S. trade demands for two reasons -- because "Japanese business was making money in the U.S. market," and because Japan's political establishment placed enormous importance on maintaining friendly relations with Washington.

But these days, he said, "Japanese businesses have begun to lose money on their investments in the U.S."

And Tokyo has concluded that if the Clinton administration imposes sanctions, Japan should respond not as if it has lost its best friend but with calm resolve, either by filing a complaint with the Geneva-based General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or by imposing sanctions of its own against American exports.

Once both sides had acted against the other, they might find it politically easier to return to the negotiating table and reach a settlement, the official said.

The officials voiced some sympathy for the U.S. frustration with Tokyo's stubbornly high trade surplus and the difficulties foreign firms face in cracking the Japanese market.

"We recognize the need to launch some initiatives," one official said. "And we will do so -- with measures to increase transparency (of government regulations) and increase competitive conditions in the Japanese market."