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Japan works to ease chip crisis

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The Japanese prime minister has a chip on his shoulder, and he wants to get it off. Yasuhiro Nakasone is coming under pressure to resolve the thorniest trade dispute with the United States: sanctions against Japanese manufacturers of semiconductors. The US imposed $300 million worth of sanctions in March.

On Wednesday, US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter told reporters that his office would soon finish - probably before the economic summit in Venice June 8 - its analysis of whether the Japanese had opened their market to the US since the sanctions were imposed. If the sanctions are retained, ``it may cloud Nakasone's participation at the summit,'' Mr. Yeutter said.

``The Japanese are always eager to go to summit meetings with all major issues resolved beforehand,'' says Edward Lincoln, a Japan economist at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Nakasone failed to persuade the President to lift the sanctions when he was in the US earlier this month. A delegation from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry is in Washington to discuss the issue.

``Nakasone's political career is at stake,'' says Carl Cook, a senior manager of Gould Inc., who is serving on an industry-government task force to resolve the issue. Knowing the pressure Nakasone is under from large chipmakers, ``the Reagan staff has been putting gentle pressure on USTR [Yeutter] and the Department of Commerce to lift sanctions without [Reagan's] losing face,'' he says.

But according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, US access to the Japanese market continues to be flat, at about 8.5 percent of chip sales in Japan. While large companies seem to be buying more US chips, the flat sales suggest smaller companies are buying fewer or are more of the total picture.

Those outside the semiconductor industry, however, credit the Japanese government with cajoling companies into cutting output and causing prices to rise. The US chip industry is now rebounding. In addition, the Japanese have been examining export licenses so that their chips won't be ``dumped'' in third countries.

The market access problem, however, will be harder to solve. Japanese buyers of semiconductors have long-term family relationships with the Japanese chipmakers; disrupting those involves overhauling an economic tradition.

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