Opening up Japanese ports, again Tit for tat: U.S. Maritime Commission forces the issue onto bilateral agenda.

October 20, 1997

THE U.S. Maritime Commission's decision Thursday to ban Japanese container ships from American ports and seize Japanese ships here, until certain fines are paid, is a show of force intended to pry open Japan to American shipping.

Its real effect was to concentrate minds in Washington and Tokyo, bucking a technical dispute to the highest political levels. The intention was not to wreck U.S.-Japanese trade and relations, but to provoke reciprocity through brinkmanship. This appeared to be working at week's end. Getting it right would encourage freer trade in the interest of both nations; miscalculation could harm both, Japan's stagnant economy more.

This was a U.S. government regulatory agency's attempt to break the restrictive stranglehold of private-sector bodies that control Japanese ports, effectively barring American shipping with red tape and feather-bedding.

The greater issue is the same pursued by U.S. trade officials in a range of disputes designed to break restrictive practices in lucrative East Asian markets. This cuts across many industries and cultural practices. That is why U.S. policy needs to be coordinated. That is also true of Japan, where civil servants are tempted to throw up their hands in the face of private sector associations that reputedly enjoy both mob and political influence.

It is not even clear that the proposed ban would be enforceable, given the way container lines swap cargo. The Federal Maritime Commission was playing with fire. But so were the Japanese shipping lines in refusing to pay fines and Japan's harbor associations. The two governments needed to step in at the highest level in the interest of the freest possible trade between the world's two largest economies.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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