The Japanese steel industry, just having emerged from the national shock that followead the oil embargo and price increases, now faces the prospect of increasing resistance to its exports.
Spokesmen at Keidanren (the Association of Economic Organizations) admit that restricting steel exports will hurt, because they have been accounting for an increasing share of production. The most recent figures show Japan exporting about one-third of the steel it produces.
There is little to cheer about on the domestic demand front.
Shipbuilders, at one time the industry's best customers, are facing their worst year yet in 1978, with orders steadily declining since the oil crisis. Japan's shipyards, which could be counted on to consume 8 million tons of steel per year, took less than 5 million in 1976. Japan
While domestic markets have shrunk, prices of raw materials - particularly coking coal - have gone up. Japanese officials are openly envious of U.S. steel makers who, as one put it, "owned their own mountains."
The price of coking coal from Canada just went up by $10 (to $60 a gon), while Australian coal is now $52. It was only $40 last year.
The Ministry of International Trade and Industry vehemently denies charges by U.S. steel officials that Japan is dumping its steel on foreign markets. "The American definition of dumping is different from ours," one Japanese official said.
A foreign official close to the Japanese steel industry says there is little question that the Japanese are selling their steel abroad below domestic market prices. He said the reason is that a price cartel in Japan keeps domestic customers at a disadvantage in bad and good times.
For example, the Chinese, who buy 8.4 per cent of Japan's steel exports, have just ordered 2 million tons of hot cold-rolled coil. The price was welldomestic Japanese levels.
The Japanese explanation is theat they are able to undersell other producers because their equipment is new and because the wages of Japanese workers are low by American and European standards.
But there is also a growing awareness that in the end the industry will have to make peace with the Americans.
And the most likely outcome is someform of voluntary export restraints such as existed from 1969 to 1971 and from 1972 to 1974.