Unbashing Japan

April 08, 1991

It will take more than a sunny meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu to smooth over the troubled American-Japanese relationship. While the two government chiefs dutifully put their emphasis on blandness rather than bashing during their short summit in California last week, they could not wish some very real irritants out of existence.

At the top of the list is trade friction, emphasized only recently by Japanese threats to arrest American rice exporters trying to display their wares in Tokyo and by Japan's perch at the top of a U.S. list of unfair trading nations. Add to that U.S. criticism of Japan's refusal to send military personnel to the gulf war, and you get an unhappy situation that the summiteers tried to mitigate.

For Mr. Bush, the session helped him accumulate IOUs that, presumably, he will cash if and when Tokyo's support (rather bTC than its past sabotage) is needed to rescue the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Mr. Kaifu's objectives were more immediate. The Japanese prime minister could lose his hold on office if his candidate for the governorship of Tokyo does poorly in next weekend's election. Equally important, he needed a show of trans-Pacific solidarity before facing Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev April 16, date of the first visit ever of a Kremlin boss to Japan.

On the Kaifu-Gorbachev agenda is the perennial question of the return of four islands north of Hokkaido that the Russians occupied at the end of World War II. If Mr. Gorbachev pulls one of his surprises by giving back the islands, he might be able to attract Japanese investment in the exploitation of Siberian resources, much to the advantage of the foundering Soviet economy. Such a development could deflect some Japanese capital needed to finance the U.S. budget deficit and set up a new triangular relationship in which the U.S. inevitably would lose some leverage.

In our view, Mr. Kaifu's continuation in office would be helpful. While he could not overcome opposition in the Diet to Japanese participation in the gulf war, he risked his political neck in pushing through an $11 billion contribution that Mr. Bush rightly labeled as generous. He also could be instrumental in overcoming the $41 billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan if his position is strengthened at the polls and through lengthening incumbency.

"Toshiki Kaifu and I are committed to see that bashing doesn't go forward and that this relationship goes on," Mr. Bush said after the summit. Fair enough, but the relationship had better change substantively for the better -- and soon.

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