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Hi-tech Japan ignores US trade threats

When the United States, angered by Japanese trading policies, shakes its fist , does Japan quiver?

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require many foreign auto companies that export to the US to produce parts here. On Dec. 16, US steelmakers formally charged their Japanese counterparts with unfair trade practices. But such threats, a high US trade official says, don't necessarily cause much consternation in the land of the rising sun.

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''Japan doesn't yet fully appreciate the current seriousness (of problems) in our trading relationship,'' says Lionel Olmer, undersecretary of commerce for international trade.

Mr. Olmer says he bases this judgment on a just-completed tour of Japan, undertaken to learn more about Japanese high-technology industries. He says the country isn't a 10-foot tall, technological giant.

But after driving the world's first ceramic-engine car, viewing a $4 billion science city devoted to research and development, and touring the production lines of numerous high-tech companies, Olmer concludes that the Japanese threat to US technology companies is quite serious. He'll soon issue a report to that effect.

''There's every reason for believing that what Japanese industry and government set their sights on they'll achieve. Look across the range of high-technology sectors in which they have said they want to either be the leader in the world or be competitive with anyone and have a substantial share of the world market: information sciences, telecommunications, computers, robots , biotechnology. They are doing very, very well,'' says Olmer.

These warnings come as trade is turning into a highly charged, political issue in the US. Democrats, eager to present clear-cut alternatives to President Reagan's policies, are continuing to clamor for the US to get tough with foreign competitors who indulge in questionable trade practices. Of seven potential Democratic presidential candidates surveyed in a recent Washington Post poll, only former US Trade Representative Reubin Askew strongly opposed the domestic content auto bill.

The United Automobile Workers is the strongest proponent of such get-tough legislation - and 19 House incumbents were upset by UAW-endorsed challengers in the November congressional elections.

As far as trade is concerned, the next Congress ''is going to be wild,'' Deputy US Trade Representative David MacDonald has said.

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Besides a new version of the domestic content auto bill, Congress in 1982 may consider steel quota legislation and domestic content requirements for other industries, speculates a Democratic congressional aide who specializes in trade issues.

Meanwhile, Olmer says, Japanese research is making great strides in areas that will be critically important in the next generation of high-tech products.

Take the ceramic engine. Produced by Kyoto Ceramics, the engine can run several hundred degrees hotter than a metal counterpart - a thermal advantage that could improve gas mileage as much as 30 percent.

''It's not yet a road car. It makes a lot of noise, but it's a heck of an achievement,'' says Olmer.

Research for the engine, half-funded by the Japanese government, could also yield valuable findings applicable to Kyoto's main business - providing ceramic packaging for semiconductors. The transfer of such technology to American firms is likely to become an increasingly important issue, Olmer says.

He complains that Japanese firms sometimes pass technology tips among themselves, then gang up and rush the US market together. The Japanese national phone company, for instance, shared its research on the 256K RAM (random access memory) chip with a select circle of firms, says Olmer.

The US is currently ''negotiating with (Japan) on the exchange of technology, '' says Olmer, aiming for an agreement on providing Japanese technology to US firms that are willing to pay for it.

Olmer also says Japan is slowly becoming more aware of US trade concerns.

''For they first time they have acknowledged they are a closed market,'' he says.

And, after becoming so mired in a Tokyo traffic jam that he abandoned his car and proceeded by bus to his destination, Olmer says Americans should remember their standard of living is still far superior to that of their Oriental competitors.

''Life in Japan,'' Olmer says, ''is difficult.''

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