The Polite Summit

January 13, 1995

Never have an American president and Japanese prime minister met on such weak terms. So yesterday President Clinton chose to see the trade relationship jar as half-full rather than half-empty and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama promised that Japan would play its financial part in Washington's provision of non-weapons-grade nuclear reactors to North Korea. Mr. Clinton got a show of support for his North Korea policy while Mr. Murayama was seen to be a world leader.

Last February, when Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa came to call on President Clinton, they argued over trade, agreed to disagree and had a "failed" summit that was a modest political success since they were seen to be tough with one another.

In this latest summit, such posturing hardly mattered. Mr. Murayama, a veteran Socialist who attained "power" at age 70, presides over a conservative coalition so unlikely that it has begun its fall. Mr. Clinton is low in popularity in a capital dazzled by his rival, Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In what is now a familiar ritual, the U.S. and Japan agreed on the eve of the summit to one more opening of Japanese markets to U.S. competitors. Half the Japanese pension industry is officially thrown open to U.S. investment management firms. Good luck to them. This follows the actual appearance of apples from the state of Washington on Japanese grocery shelves, years after agreement in principle to let them in.

The U.S. goal of numerical targets for U.S. penetration of Japan remains out of reach. Market access is still in disagreement. The U.S. trade deficit for 1994 was an estimated record $62 billion, meaning that whatever has been agreed, the problem is not solved.

It is time for Japan as a mature economy to open up its markets, as others' are opened to Japanese firms, and this remains a fit subject of contention between the U.S. and Japan even while the U.S. security umbrella remains. But progress is more likely to be substantial when there is a Japanese political leadership secure in its position, and a U.S. leader secure and steadfast in his.

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