What can the rest of the world do about the huge Japanese trade surplus? At any meeting of government or financial officials these days, this question, even if not stated on the agenda, is a high-priority topic. The conventional wisdom among Europeans and Americans is that Japan should be forced to open its doors wider to imports, especially of manufactured goods. Japan's huge trade surplus, it is alleged, is a compound of unfair trade practices, import barriers and miscellaneous dirty tricks.
But it fell to a leading British industrialist at an international monetary conference here to put the nagging question of low Japanese imports in some perspective.
Sir John Harvey-Jones is chairman of the huge conglomerate, Imperial Chemical Industries which sells about $400 million in pharmaceutical and other products to Japan annually. He said that it is a delusion to think that Japan has the capacity to absorb significantly larger imports from the West.
"We're not up against a great Japanese conspiracy," Harvey-Jones said, "We're up against a national psychology, and therefore doing deals with the Japanese to open up markets is not going to change that situation to the scale necessary to have an enormous impact on the U.S. deficit."
Harvey-Jones' comments came in response to a suggestion from a fellow panelist, former Economic Council chairman Martin S. Feldstein. He suggested that the way to encourage Japan to reduce its trade surplus is to persuade that country to import more when foreign products are competitive in price and quality, rather than to change its cultural patterns. Feldstein criticized the pressure being placed on Japan by the Reagan administration (and endorsed in principle by the Japanese Maekawa report) to reduce its high saving rate and to increase domestic investment.
"I believe that this is the wrong message for Japan's trading partners to have given, and that it would be wrong for Japan to adopt such a change in domestic policies just to conform to those suggestions," Feldstein said.
But practical businessman Harvey-Jones rebutted the Harvard professor. Harvey-Jones did agree with Feldstein that outsiders are in no position to dictate to Japan what to do about its savings rate. But as an experienced hand in the Japanese market, he confirmed what others have reported about persuading Japanese to buy from foreigners: it is simplistic to think a cheaper dollar (and a higher-valued yen) will mean imported goods will automatically penetrate the Japanese market. Those who place excessive faith in the magic power of depreciating foreign currencies to "cure" the Japanese trade surplus simply do not understand Japan, he said. The yen would have to appreciate dramatically -- much more than the 50 percent against the dollar that it has risen since last year -- to make a meaningful difference.
Confronted with Harvey-Jones' argument, Feldstein turned to the British industrialist during a press conference, and said: "Let me ask you this question. If the yen were 30 percent higher relative to sterling, would that help you sell there?"
Feldstein clearly anticipated an affirmative answer. What he got from Harvey-Jones was this: "I do not believe that selling in Japan is a matter of price, do not believe it ever has been a matter of price, and I personally don't believe it ever will be a matter of price.
"If you sell into Japan, by and large Japanese will only buy from you if there is no Japanese alternative. If there is no Japanese alternative, they will match you on price, no matter what, It's a matter of national pride. I'm all in favor of trying to press them to import more, and I believe in the very long haul, Ja;an has got to open up more." But don't expect it to happen soon, he cautioned.
Japan, Harvey-Jones added, is hard to beat on quality. Others can match Japanese companies on an individual item, he said, but their genius is in manufacturing consistency, churning out quality products almost without a miss.
At some point, he conceded, the dollar will fall to where it will again be economic to manufacture in the United States. There will even be a U.S.-made television set." To which Feldstein added with a smile: "It will be a Japanese television set made in the United States."
The Harvey-Jones/Feldstein exchange barings us back to the Maekawa report, endorsed by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone but viewed with great caution by other Japanese leaders. The Maekawa report proposes that Japan begin to depend on domestic growth rather than export-led growth. It is probably the right policy for Japan to follow in its own self-interset: Japan as a nation is wealthy, but the benefits haven't been widely distributed.
Japan needs better housing and a better standard of living for its consumers. It is the only long-term solution to correcting the huge imbalances between Japan and its trading partners.