PRIME Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's televised plea to the Japanese people to open up their nation to the importation of more overseas products was a remarkable and courageous action. Tokyo -- and Washington -- will now have to follow through with practical steps to ensure that the prime minister's new three-year trade-related ``action program'' works. In the meantime, the United States and the Japanese people need to reaffirm their commitment to the long-range ties that have developed between the two former adversaries. The close Washington-Tokyo link has been an important stabilizing factor over the past several decades -- a period during which East Asia has flourished economically in a climate of peaceful, although competitive, shared interests.
That means that Congress needs to back off from taking harsh steps, such as the recent round of nonbinding anti-Japanese economic resolutions that would impose tough new restraints on Japanese exports to the US without quick market-opening moves by Tokyo.
On the surface, the widening impasse between the two nations involves matters of trade. Japan's trade surplus with the US last year reached $37 billion. The surplus could climb to $50 billion this year.
In fact, the impasse involves far more than trade. It has historical and cultural roots. Japan is a tightly homogeneous society, quite unlike the United States, with its pluralism of peoples and ethnic backgrounds. The Japanese people must export products abroad to obtain currency to buy raw materials for their island nation. In such a setting, foreigners have been historically looked upon with caution. Indeed, the Japanese word for ``foreigner'' is someone from an ``outside'' country.
That is why Prime Minister Nakasone's appearance on TV to talk to the Japanese people about imports becomes as remarkable as the substance of the government's new import policy itself. Washington is right to take a wait-and-see attitude toward that policy's details, which will be announced by July.
Mr. Nakasone used a uniquely colloquial form of speech to ask his fellow citizens each to buy $100 worth of overseas products. This involves a political risk. How will that play with the average Japanese, or with the various factions within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party? The faction of the party that has the most influence on the trade-import issue, particularly involving telecommunications equipment, which is now under negotiation by the US and Tokyo, is not the Nakasone wing of the party at all, but the Tanaka faction, loyal to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Will Mr. Nakasone be able to maintain his careful balancing act between the various factions within the LDP? Or will calls increase for a prime minister more ``defensive'' of Japanese interests?
Congress needs to keep internal Japanese political considerations in mind as it fashions US trade policy. If the US goes too far in its demands on Japan, Mr. Nakasone could be undermined, thus paving the way for a prime minister far less conciliatory.
The trade focus must shift from the bilateral US-Japan link to the broader world trade pattern. Multinational trade relations should occupy center stage at the Bonn economic summit in May. Japan and the US have both agreed that preparatory discussions for a new round of global trade talks should get under way in the second half of this year, followed by full-fledged negotiations aimed at reducing trade barriers during 1986. That approach is sound.
Meantime, the US should maintain quiet diplomatic pressure on the Japanese government. The US could station a permanent compliance team in Tokyo to ensure that US goods are in fact getting into the country.
US companies need to do a better job of selling abroad. The Japanese tend to think in terms of ``systems'' -- not just specific products. That means that they consider engineering and maintenance packages.
Finally, the US needs to get the high value of the dollar down to a level that enables American companies to be more price competitive on world markets.