WASHINGTON -- Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr. yesterday became the first administration official to say publicly that Japan was partly to blame for the lingering recession in the United States.
Mr. Mosbacher's comments are especially significant because he will head President Bush's re-election campaign next year and serve as chief fund-raiser. The remarks came as Mr. Bush prepared to leave today on a trip to Japan and three other Asian countries that will focus on trade issues.
That trip was scheduled in November as a demonstration of U.S. political and military commitment to Asian allies, but it has become focused on trade and jobs. The change of emphasis seems to reflect Mr. Bush's slippage in polls and attacks from Democrats saying that he is more concerned with foreign affairs than with the nation's economic problems.
Yesterday, on the NBC News program "Meet the Press," Mr. Mosbacher was asked whether he agreed with a comment by Representative John D. Dingell, D-Mich., that the recession in the United States is being "made in Japan."
Mr. Mosbacher replied, "Not totally, no."
Pressed as to whether he meant that Japan was partly responsible, he replied, "I would say they are exacerbating the problem" by not allowing in U.S. exports that would produce jobs in the United States. Nearly 20,000 jobs are created by each $1 billion increase in United States exports, he added.
Mr. Mosbacher mentioned earlier in the program that the United States had the option of restricting Japanese car exports to this country. But he said the nation's deficit with Japan grew over many years and could not be quickly reduced.
Hiroshi Hirabayashi, the deputy chief of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, vehemently denied that Japan bore any responsibility for the U.S. recession.
Some U.S. managers and government officials "want to place the responsibility on the foreigners, on the Japanese," he said, adding, "In my opinion, it's outrageous."
Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry has made many efforts to accommodate U.S. demands, he said, citing voluntary restraints on car exports and programs to increase imports. "MITI has offered many initiatives to Mr. Mosbacher, and then he blames the Japanese," he continued. "I think it is not fair."
Some obstacles to imports do persist in Japan, Mr. Hirabayashi added. But he said that the main reasons for the trade imbalance, particularly in automobiles, lay in poor-quality management at U.S. corporations and the failure of U.S. political leaders to reduce the federal budget deficit and adopt responsible economic policies.
Also on "Meet the Press" yesterday, Deputy Foreign Minister Koji Watanabe of Japan said that his government had been studying some ways to expand the import of U.S. goods. But he repeatedly denied reports that Japan might voluntarily cut shipments of automobiles to the United States. He appeared before Mr. Mosbacher on the television program and did not have an opportunity to respond to the commerce secretary's remarks.
The House majority leader, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, and five Democratic members of Congress from Michigan proposed legislation Dec. 20 that would reduce sales of Japanese cars in the United States unless the bilateral trade deficit is reduced from the current $42 billion to less than $5 billion by 1997.
Asked whether significant improvement could be possible in five years, Mr. Mosbacher responded: "We're not going to get that."