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Japan Inc. aims to stay in business by boosting imports

A possible new entry in Japan's annual honors list: ''For outstanding services to imports.'' As part of an effort to switch emphasis away from exports, the government is considering citations or ''letters of appreciation'' for local businessmen who make a special effort to expand imports.

Even more earthshaking, the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), long seen overseas as the architect (or conniver) of Japan's export drives, is turning over a new leaf and devoting a good portion of its energies to import promotion.

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It is not hard to understand why. There is deep concern throughout the government at the way Japan's trade surplus continues to grow, primarily through a large imbalance in dealing with the United States and Western Europe.

Although the final figures have not yet been released, the trade surplus in fiscal 1982 (ending March 31) is believed to have hit an all-time high of $30 billion. Even the much broader-based current account, including ''invisibles'' in which Japan is almost always in deficit, was almost $20 billion in the black.

The general government feeling from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone on down is that something has to be done fast if Japan is not to face a fresh round of strained relations with the US and Europe, international isolation, and powerful demands for curbs on exports.

What makes it more difficult is that last year's trade surplus was not due to any sort of export offensive - many key Japanese products like cars and videotape recorders are now under official restraint agreements - but due to a collapse in import demand. Both exports and imports declined sharply. Now there are signs of a recovery in export shipments, but the slide in the other direction continues.

Hence, MITI's unusual new role as an import promoter.

Ministry officials say the macroeconomic options are limited by the government's huge chronic budgetary deficit and constraints on monetary policy.

Among ways of boosting imports now being studied are:

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* Tax concessions, especially lowering the excise tax on consumer durables. One example: cutting the tax on large (mostly American) passenger cars from 22.5 to 17.5 percent, the level prevailing for small cars.

* Larger tax credits for depreciation of imported machinery. Such imports have slipped considerably in the past decade as manufacturers have become much stronger.

* Creating a ''market development fund'' to help finance foreign businessmen in their market research and other developmental activities through the provision of low-interest loans.

* Import financing by government-owned banks, especially low-interest loans from the export-import bank for expanding purchases of manufactured goods.

* Promoting a ''buy foreign'' policy under which government agencies would be encouraged to procure more foreign manufactured products. One possible way: government ministers riding around Tokyo in Cadillacs.

MITI's new chief, Sosuke Uno, has been strongly pushing the need for Japan to import more by every means possible. And his own leader, Prime Minister Nakasone , came up with some specific proposals during a recent election campaign tour.

First, he proposed that the semi-governmental Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), originally set up to promote the nation's exports, should switch to import promotion. A JETRO spokesman was quick to point out that the organization had been import-oriented for years, and that the major function of the Tokyo headquarters and its overseas offices was to assist foreign businessmen in finding opportunities to penetrate the Japanese market.

Second, Mr. Nakasone stressed the government would pursue policies of encouraging purchases from abroad as ''we must expand trade dramatically, not reduce it.''

Third, he promised more ''buying missions'' would be sent abroad. These are semi-governmental import promotion missions such as those comprising top businessmen who have been sent to the US and Europe several times in the past and have generated several billion dollars worth of fresh business. Other countries are encouraged to send their own sales missions to Japan.

Government concern at the booming trade surpluses is shared by the business community. Some business leaders are already talking of a ''worst case scenario'' - cutting exports if nothing else works. They would much rather see the government take strong steps to stimulate depressed domestic demand, even if it means facing stronger foreign competition in the home market.

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