The Japanese government has agreed to open its trading doors a little bit further to foreign fruit and beef in a largely symbolic gesture it hopes will settle the trade dispute with the United States next week.
According to Japanese newspaper accounts, the government has approved increases in import quotas of oranges, concentrated orange and grapefruit juice, and beef.
The increases are modest when measured against what the United States had sought during nearly four months of negotiations.
But the government contends they are as high as it can go in face of the mounting hostility of Japanese farmers who don't want any further competition from abroad.
One government source conceded that the new Japanese offer is not likely to have much of an effect on the overall trade surplus, which the U.S. is anxious to see whittled down. But he said it has symbolic value because it shows Japan's willingness to open its market in the face of powerful internal political pressures.
The new offer is one more piece in the package of trade concessions to be discussed next week when Robert Strauss, the U.S. special trade representative, comes to Tokyo. The Japanese hope his visit will put a seal of approval on the package and end the long and contentious wrangling between the two countries.
The Japanese assume that Strauss would not be making his long-delayed trip here unless he could claim that progress has been made. Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda told reporters yesterday he is convinced that the differences can be settled during the Strauss visit.
Strauss is scheduled to arrive in the middle of the week and will be preceded by his top aide, Alan Wolff.
The Japanese offer provides for a tripling of the present quotas on oranges and orange and grapefruit juice, and on beef sold in hotels. There would be no change in import restrictions on foreign-grown beef sold to the public at large.
The United States had asked Japan to raise the quota on hotel beer from 1,000 to 10,000 tons, according to Japanese sources, but the new offer would increase it only to 3,000 tons.
Similarly, Japan would lift its quota on concentrated orange and grapefruit juice from 1,000 to 3,000 tons. The U.S. had asked that it be set at 10,000 tons.
The Japanese agreed to triple the quota on imported oranges from the current 15,000 tons to 45,000 tons. Almost all of it, according to the newspaper accounts today, would be sold here only when native-grown oranges are out of season.
Japanese farmers bitterly resent even the slightest increase in the quotas and last week launched a street demonstration to warn the Fukuda cabinet it should not accede to U.S. demands. They are an influential force in Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party. With its present slim majorities in the parliament, the party can hardly afford to alienate even the smallest bloc of supporters. Fukuda's aides have argued in defending the reluctance to raise agriculture quotas.
On another key trade issue, the Japanese steel industry reacted cautiously to the announcement in Washington of a "trigger-price" mechanism that is designed to restrict the amount of steel products being exported to the United States.
The Treasury announced a minimum price schedule on sales of foreign steel that averages 5.7 per cent below prices charged by U.S. producers. The sale of any foreign steel below the minimums would be regarded as illegal and would provoke an immediate Treasury anti-dumping investigation. The aim is to force up the prices of foreign steel and permit U.S. producers to become more competitive.
Industry officials refused to comment in detail on the new U.S. schedules, which are to become effective in February. But some expressed concern that the minimum prices were set so high that they might have a serious effect on Japan's already depressed industry.
Before the new schedule was announced, industry leaders here had said they would be satisfied if the minimums were set at 10 per cent below U.S. domestic prices. Although they kept silent today, they were reportedly disappointed that the difference set by Treasury is only 5.7 per cent.
One key government official said he was not surprised at the schedule announced in Washington, but declined to speculate on his government's reaction and said it is too early to determine what effect the schedule would have on Japanese steel exports this year.