TOKYO, MAY 31 -- An influential government advisory council said today that Japan's trade surplus, long an irritant to Washington, is not a negative factor in the world economy and may in fact be a good thing.
The chairman of the council, former vice minister of finance Tomomitsu Ohba, said he believes that Japan's current level of surplus is appropriate because it allows Japan to help finance the U.S. debt and the needs of developing nations.
This view, if adopted as Japan's official position, would represent a startling turnabout for the government, which has been working for several years to reduce Japan's trade surplus with the United States and the world. The view also would seem to conflict with key U.S. goals in recent trade talks, in which Washington urged Japan to consume more, import more and save less.
Japan's $45 billion trade surplus is seen by many Americans as unhealthy and at least in part a result of unfair barriers to U.S. goods. Growing purchases by Japanese investors of U.S. land, companies and other assets also have provoked resentment.
A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 75 percent of Americans view Japan's economic power as a greater threat than the Soviet Union's military.
Japan's Finance Ministry provided the staff for the advisory council and drafted its report. Such reports usually are adopted as government policy but a Finance Ministry official said his ministry will refer to the report in its policy planning but not necessarily adopt its viewpoint.
Still, the new report states officially for the first time a view that has been gaining currency among private economists and among some government officials. The view gained respectability after the International Monetary Fund, in its global economic outlook last month, said that a sudden dwindling of Japan's surplus could harm the world economy.
Against this backdrop, the report is likely to be seen as a trial balloon floated by the Finance Ministry, which has been most resistant to U.S. demands to increase public-works spending as one way to reduce the trade imbalance. Officials in the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), who tend to be more attuned to international opinion, flatly reject the idea that the surplus is a good thing.
Ohba, who was chairman of the advisory council of academics and business executives, said major changes in the world justify a reexamination of Japan's trade surplus. For one, he said, the surplus has steadily declined for several years. The surplus in the current account -- which covers trade in both merchandise and services -- fell from 4.3 percent of Japan's gross national product in 1986 to 2.0 percent last year, according to MITI.
Furthermore, Ohba said the pending reunification of Germany and Eastern Europe's move to market economies have sharply increased the world's need for capital. At the same time, the U.S. budget deficit and low savings rate make it impossible for the United States to meet the global needs for funds, he said.
"It is a fact that expectations of Japan as a capital-supplying nation are rising," Ohba said.
He said he thinks a surplus of 2 percent of GNP is appropriate, with 1 percent helping finance the U.S. debt and 1 percent being recycled to developing nations. But he said the council did not reach any consensus on specific levels to aim for.
The council did agree, however, that Japan's trade surplus should no longer be seen as a "disturbing" element in the world economy, he said. Ohba noted that Britain ran a current account surplus averaging 3 percent of GNP for a century, and that the United States ran a surplus of about 1 percent for about 50 years.
He said the academics on the council argued that Japan should stop being defensive about its surplus, which is only a decade old.
Ohba said he does not believe that the report should spark criticism in Washington because Japan "has not yet changed" its basic policy of expanding domestic demand, which in turn sucks in more imports from the United States and elsewhere. But he suggested that major responsibility for the U.S. trade deficit lies with Americans, who should save more and reduce their budget deficit.