Honda Motor Co., which announced in September that it will export automobiles made at its Ohio plants to Japan, is not the only Japanese-owned company in the United States to engage in West-to-East trade.
From cookies to computer keyboards, from ball bearings to oak furniture, the range of products made by workers in the United States and financed by Japanese capital that is now bound for customers in Tokyo and Osaka, a Japanese seaport, is growing.
The sharp rise of the yen against the dollar has greatly affected the operations of Japanese-affiliated manufacturing plants in this country, according to a recent survey of 479 such facilities by the Japanese External Trade Organization (Jetro) in New York. Four out of five are now buying their supplies from countries other than Japan, and more than half are relying solely on U.S. raw materials.
Of particular importance, said Jetro, is that 21 of the factories have begun exporting U.S.-made products to Japan, while another 19 export them to third countries. The majority (63 percent) of these operations produce electric and electronic components and finished goods. Chemicals, transportation equipment, machinery and food products are among the exports.
Jetro estimates that about 160,000 people work for Japanese-affiliated concerns in the United States, a number that could increase if exports expand.
The decline of the dollar and the possibility of protectionist legislation are encouraging Japanese companies to invest in plants in the United States. The currency adjustments can make it cheaper to manufacture some goods in this country. At the same time, manufacturing here provides jobs for American workers and may soften the cry for curbs on foreign products.
As a result, manufactured exports of goods from Japanese-owned plants in this country, including consumer products, are believed to be rising.
Since the Jetro survey, Mazda Motors Corp. of America has announced it will follow Honda's example, while Mitsubishi Motors Corp/Diamond-Star Motors, a Mitsubishi-Chrysler joint venture, is considering shipping sedans to Japan.
Among other well-known Japanese companies planning to export products or components from their American plants to Japan are Hitachi Computer Products (computer disk drives made in Oklahoma), Miyano Machinery USA Inc. in suburban Chicago (machine tools), Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corp. America in Georgia (golf carts), Sony Corp. of America (television tubes made in San Diego) and Fujitsu America Inc. of San Jose.
Canon is considering exporting business machines if it can produce them more efficiently here, and Matsushita Electric Co. of America may ship its electronics equipment.
U.S. exports to Japan are running at the rate of $26.7 billion this year, up from $23.6 billion in 1984 before the dollar lost ground to the yen, and almost even with 1986, according to Shearson Lehman Economics. It is not yet known what portion of those figures represents exports by Japanese-affiliated companies in the United States.
(Any company in which Japanese interests amount to 10 percent or more is considered a Japanese-affiliated company for statistical purposes. However, more than 80 percent of the companies in the Jetro study were wholly owned by Japanese.)
Ken Shimba of Matsushita said Japanese investment in this country has occurred in several stages. In the first stage during the late 1950s, Japanese companies began exporting to America. The second stage was to establish factories here to assemble components from Japan.
Next came the switch to local components. The fourth and final stage involves the shipment of products made in America with U.S. resources to Japan and other countries.
Matsushita, in common with many other Japanese-owned U.S. companies, is now moving from the third to the fourth stages.
While the process creates U.S. jobs, it means eventual repatriation of profits. "It would be preferable if U.S.-owned companies were doing the exporting," said Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics. "But on balance, it's a net gain because direct investment is better than debt."
He said Japanese-owned U.S. companies exporting to Japan is "an inevitable part of the interpenetration of corporate markets." He added, "We'd be poorly placed to complain about this, as the U.S. has been one of the main penetrators since our firms began investing around the world in the 1960s."
After forming a joint venture in 1985 with the D.F. Stauffer Biscuit Co. of York, Pa., Stauffer-Meiji Inc. began exporting Slim Stix, a chocolate cracker snack, to Japan in June.
The York plant was called on to supplement production capacity in Japan. (The manufacturing process is identical since Japanese equipment was installed in the Pennsylvania factory.) Stauffer-Meiji added a second shift and created 18 new jobs for U.S. workers. The company expects to ship 30,000 cases in 1987.
The product is the same snack in both countries, although there are slight variations in the chocolate taste. The York operation repackaged Slim Stix in larger quantities and changed the graphics to Japanese characters.
The delivered cost of the snacks is virtually identical to that of Slim Stix produced in Japan, said Stauffer-Meiji's marketing manager, Byard T. Ebling. Labor costs are roughly equal in both countries. To the cost of refrigeration and transportation of the York products must be added to the 24 percent import duty levied by Japan on crackers. On the other hand, the Meiji plant in Tokyo must pay duty on the ingredients and packing materials it imports to make the snacks there.
Stauffer-Meiji is trying to get Slim Stix reclassified as a chocolate product because recent U.S.-Japan trade negotiators have agreed to lower the tariff on chocolate to 10 percent in April 1988. If that move is successful, the cost of snacks produced in the United States would be lower than those made in Japan, said Ebling. Since both domestic and imported snack would be sold at the same retail price in Japan, the net effect of making the product in the United States would be greater profits for the Japanese parent.
Another company, Lakewood Forest Products of Hibbing, Minn., is exporting chopsticks to Japan. Lakewood, a subsidiary of a Vancouver company, is not now owned by Japanese interests, but will market its product through three Japanese distributors. The first shipment of 12 million pieces took place in mid-October.
When Lakewood is operating at full capacity, it will employ 120 people capable of turning out 7 million chopsticks a day.