Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), looking as if he wished he were beside a cool mountain stream instead of in a Capitol Hill hearing room, flicked the tip of a fishing rod yesterday and said, "I can tell you it's a top-quality rod."
A Japanese reporter looked mildly impressed at the rod. "Fishing is a very popular sport in Japan," he said.
The scene was set up to allow Baucus and the National Association of Manufacturers to present a list of American products they think would sell well in Japan. Their effort was a response to the 21-item list released last week by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone as part of his campaign to get the Japanese to buy more foreign goods.
Nakasone's list consisted largely of small-ticket consumer goods, including products such as meat thermometers and fondue sets, both of which the Japanese are unlikely to use. (Few Japanese kitchens have ovens, and with heavy Japanese restrictions on imports, beef costs about $30 a pound in Tokyo -- too expensive for most families to serve roasts for dinner.)
The U.S. list ranged from fishing equipment and beef jerky to $400 million satellites and mobile cellular phones.
Baucus called Nakasone's list "a little short"; later he said it was "outrageous." NAM Executive Vice President Jerry Jasinowski called it "a gesture of good faith" and said it shows "we have a long way to go in educating Japanese customers about American products."
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Michael B. Smith offered his own list of U.S. products the Japanese could buy to cut into their $36.8 billion trade surplus with the United States. He started with big-ticket items such as satellites; central telephone switching equipment; aluminum; manufactured chemicals, and paper, pulp and wood products.
He added that Japan could take pressure off other exports to the United States by buying more textiles, steel and low-technology consumer electronics from less developed countries around the Pacific rim.
The Commerce Department has estimated the the Japanese trade surplus with the United States could be reduced by $10 billion to $12 billion if Japan lifted all its import barriers.
Japanese journalists at the press conference were skeptical, however. One commented that a major economic power such as the United States should have more to sell. A woman reporter said Japanese don't eat much beef. "It's too expensive," she added. But she said Japanese women would love American cosmetics; the only trouble is they face import barriers.
Baucus presented 21 products made in Montana, which he pointed out is not a heavy manufacturing state. These included beef products, smoked rainbow trout, energy-efficient windows and knife sharpeners.
The NAM list was more substantial, ranging from pens and baseball bats to high-technology pagers, machine tools and semiconductors. "It is these kind of purchases that in time will moderate if not erase America's enormous trade deficit with Japan," Jasinowski said.
Many of these products, however, face barriers to their sale in Japan. Motorola said three of its high-technology products -- a data terminal that either connects to a telephone or transmits and receives information via a built-in two-way phone, a paging unit, and a portable cellular phone -- are excluded by non-tariff barriers.
Japanese purchases of U.S. semiconductors have remained at a steady 10 percent of the market, even though American companies in head-to-head competition with Japan capture more than half of the markets in the rest of the world. "We're clearly competitive, and we're clearly not allowed to participate fully in the Japanese market," said James Asher, representing the Semiconductor Industry Association.