TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Toyota Motors Corp. Chairman Eiji Toyoda on yesterday appeared to edge away from what seemed to be commitments to buy more American autos and auto parts, setting off acrimonious debate and new accusations of duplicity in the United States.
Meanwhile, Yoshio Sakurauchi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said over the weekend that American workers are lazy and unproductive and that the reason their goods do not meet Japanese standards is because 30 percent of them cannot read.
Although the unrelated comments by the top officials received modest play in the Japanese press, they are sure to further inflame American passions against the Japanese, fueling hard-line sentiments that they are dishonest and arrogant.
And, just as presidential campaigning in New Hampshire kicks into high gear, the Japanese comments are likely to undermine President Bush's efforts to paint his recent Asian trip as a success.
During his four-day visit to Japan ending Jan. 10, Mr. Bush extracted pledges from the Japanese to double their purchases of American auto parts from $9 billion to $19 billion by 1994. In a separate vow, Japan's top five auto-makers agreed to import 20,000 American cars. The auto issue dominated the Tokyo summit agenda, because autos and auto parts make up 75 percent of the $41 billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan.
But both actions were considered here to be "voluntary" pledges by the private sector, and at the time Japanese government officials cautioned that they had no power to enforce the agreements. Toyota showed similar caution, releasing a carefully worded statement that it was "prepared to negotiate" the import 5,000 General Motors vehicles.
In Detroit, General Motors spokesman John Pekarek agreed with the Japanese that no concrete commitment had been made. "In terms of a direct agreement with Toyota, we never said we had a direct agreement," Mr. Pekarek said. "They pledged they would 'investigate' selling 5,000 [American] cars."
Yet it is clear that Mr. Bush and other American officials believed that they had brought more home from their Asian trip than a pledge. The president would not answer questions on the issue when asked yesterday, and the White House said there would no further comment.
Yesterday, J. Michael Farren, undersecretary of commerce, warned the Japanese of a "very negative" reaction in the United States, if the Japanese backed off from their word. "It is not
unusual for Japanese government officials to make what looks like a fairly basic commitment and they qualify it heavily at a later date," he said.
In an interview with NHK, Japan's national television network, Mr. Miyazawa said the Japanese pledges were "a target rather than a firm promise." Mr. Toyoda, in a separate interview, said his company would "study and consider the possibility of selling GM cars." He added, "It is too much to say we will actually sell them."
But the most provocative comments in recent days came from Mr. Sakurauchi, who told supporters at a New Year's party on Sunday that the main reason for the bilateral trade friction was America's inferior labor.
Mr. Sakurauchi, who is an outspoken conservative legislator, criticized American workers for demanding high pay when their productivity was so low.
"It is so sad that the U.S. begged the Japanese and became the automakers' subcontractor," he said, adding that his intention was to inform Americans of Japanese expectations of high-quality goods.
"The source of the problem is the inferior quality of U.S. labor," he reportedly said, according to the New York Times. "U.S. workers are too lazy. They want high pay without working."]
About 30 percent of American workers "cannot even read. So managers cannot convey their orders in written form. Therefore, they get a high ratio of bad parts," Mr. Sakurauchi reportedly said.
Mr. Sakurauchi's opinion is widely held in Japan, although it is not usually so forthrightly expressed by top leaders. American political reaction to the Japanese comments was swift.
"I don't think they'll get away with it," fumed Heinz Prechter, chairman of the Michigan-based auto supplier ASC Inc. He was one of the 21 executives who accompanied Bush to Japan. He said he had believed that the Tokyo agreement represented a firm commitment.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D.-Mo., said the remarks from Tokyo underscored the need for his legislation to impose penalties against Japan if it fails to cut its trade deficit with the United States.
Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., likened the present-day Japanese attitude toward Americans to those that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and condemned Tokyo's "trade-cheating" for "steadily destroying the U.S. industrial base."