America faces an economic crisis "precipitated by the brilliance of Japan's industrial drive," according to a bipartisan warning issued yesterday by a group of U.S. congressmen who have sought over the years to avert a protectionist response to the United States's major Pacific ally.
After visits to Japan last summer, members of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, led by Chairman Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), said in a report to the full committee that Japan is exceeding U.S. performance in the high-technology industries "which will dominate the rest of this century."
Contrary to some popular views, Japan is not an "economic juggernaut, sweeping over sector after sector of the world economy," they said. But the group argued that the Japanese challenge "is extremely serious," not well understood by most Americans, and must be answered by changes in management-labor relationships and practices--especially those dealing with productivity and quality control.
The committee forecast that the Japanese trade surplus with the United States in 1982 will exceed the $15 billion advantage for Japan this year. Therefore, the congressmen urged not only that Japan "do even more" to open its own markets but also called on this country to "rejuvenate" itself to compete with Japan.
The committee admitted that the "voluntary" export controls Japan placed on autos last April "had only papered over a continuing crisis," and by boosting Japanese retail car prices had caused inflation in the United States--yielding greater profits for Japan.
On the basis of their own observations on the scene, the committee members said that while U.S. factories are trying to improve efficiency and quality, "the Japanese are not standing still, but moving into new market niches in high-quality, luxury autos and low-cost 'midget' cars, which get extremely high mileage and are ideally suited for urban driving.
"In short, Detroit needs to do more than catch up--it needs to leap ahead into new markets and new concepts."
The committee's report put great emphasis on the willingness of Japan to modernize plant capacity, especially through the use of robots. It was also noted by Rep. John H. Rousselot (R-Calif.) that Japanese industry had greater support from its labor unions in using robots than has been the case here.
The commmittee referred to robots as "the ultimate machine tool," and said that Japan, already by far the largest user, is steadily increasing its reliance on robots not only to gain quality and price advantages but also because its population is aging. The over-65 age group, now about 9 percent of the population, is expected to rise to about 19 percent by 2000, which would be the highest ratio in the world.
Thus, Japan is planning now to avoid a manpower crisis by building up its robot population. The ultimate step, as related in the report, is the planning in progress for robots to make robots.