Using the bluntest language so far in an escalating trade confrontation, the United States insisted today that Japan set specific percentage goals for increasing its imports of foreign goods.
The United States also called on the Japanese government to say precisely when it will wipe out its huge and growing trade surplus and to set its sights on an economic growth rate of 7 to 10 per cent.
The Japanese reacted sharply to the U.S. demands and, according to wellplaced sources, the Japanese side did not give much ground.
One Japanese official, irritated after hearing the demands for specific import targets, responded that "we are not in a planned economy."
The unusual U.S. demands for specific, immediate decisions were presented by U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield to Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda and by specal trade negotiator Richard Rivers in a meeting with government officials.
According to sources here, they told the Japanese that only such definite prompt commitments could head off growing anti-Japanese sentiment and a rising protectionism in the United States.
Their insistence and the unusually rough language used earlier in Washington by Vice President Mondale and special trade representative Robert Strauss have combined to shock and irritate the Japanese government.
Strauss is understood to have warned Japanese parliamentariians in Washington this week that if the talks between the two countries do n not succeed, the Carter administration no longer will try to prevent Congress from enacting protectionist legislation. U.S.-Japanese relations are nearing a "bursting point," Strauss reportedly said.
Mondale was quoted in Japanese newspapers today as accusing Fukuda of failing to keep a promise to reduce the trade surplus.
One Japanese official characterized those remarks and the new offensive launched here today as an unnecessary American attempt to prod Japan to action.
"If there was a need to shake up people who are thought to be inward-looking, there was a more tactful way of doing it," the official said.
Another Japanese government leader suggested that U.S. officials *may have adopted a hard line against Japan to placate public opinion at home.
"Given the situation in Washington, that kind of language may be understandable," he said. "But it is not quite right to heat up the situation. Things should be done in quiet atmosphere."
American officials for months have been prodding Japan to restrict exports and permit more imports but never as directly as in the past few days.
The United States frequently has urged Japan to import more manufactured goods and agricultural commodities, in addition to raw materials, which have had relatively free access to Japanese markets. Today, Mansfield reportedly told Fukuda that Japan should set a goal of importing those products as a fixed percentage of their total consumption in Japan.
Rivers, a key Strauss aide, was equally blunt, according to accounts of his meeting at the Japanese Foreign Ministry. He told officials there that they must lower tariffs, simplify import procedures and even open up the purchases of government supplies to foreign bidders.
The U.S. representatives also urged Japan to set a growth rate in this fiscal year of between 7 and 8 per cent in order to increase domestic demand for goods. Government economists now project a growth rate of between 6 and 6.5 per cent.
The Japanese reportedly made no reply and after the meeting one official said, "It would be hard to make a pledge of attaining a specific growth rate." He also said Japan could not fix a precise date for wiping out its trade surplus, as the Americans had demanded.
Mansfield, whose attempts to prod the Japanese had been mildly worded until today, was said to have warned Fukuda that U.S.-Japanese relations have been seriously damaged by the trade confrontations. According to reliable reports, he told the prime minister that action is needed now to prevent further deterioration.
Japan's soaring trade surplus, which continues to grow despite Tokyo's pledges to reduce it, is the reason the U.S. officials are so insistent on immediate action, sources here said.
Fukuda promised last spring, at the London economic summit conference, that his country's surplus would be wiped out and a $700 million deficit in current accounts established by next March, the end of this fiscal year.
Rapidly expanding exports and declining imports have made that estimate wildly inaccurate. The government now believes Japan will show a whopping $8 billion surplus and Mansfield reportedly told Fukuda today that, according to U.S. and European estimates, it will be nearly $10 billion.