TOKYO — American farmers won't get all the new business if Japan opens its market to more agricultural imports, Japanese commentators said on the eve of a visit to Washington by the Japanese agriculture minister.
"If Japan can import freely, there is always Australian beef and fruit from other countries," which cost less than U.S. products, said Mitsuru Uchida, professor of political science at Tokyo's Waseda University.
"The United States will suffer. People will buy from cheaper places," said Hirotatsu Fujiwara, a political commentator and author.
Takashi Sato, the minister of agriculture, is scheduled to travel to Washington today to seek an easing of U.S. demands for an end to Japan's barriers against beef and orange imports.
The current four-year agreement on beef and oranges expires Thursday. The United States has refused to open negotiations on a new pact until Tokyo draws up a timetable for a complete end to the quotas. It also has threatened to take the matter to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, an international forum that oversees the trade rules agreed upon by its member nations.
In separate interviews, Fujiwara and Uchida said Japan should open its market to imported food. But both expressed doubts about whether ending Japan's limits on beef and citrus fruit imports would help reduce the United States' huge deficit in its trade with Japan, which reached a record $59.8 billion last year.
Japan in recent years has bought almost 20% of all U.S. farm exports, or nearly $6 billion worth in 1986, according to Japanese government estimates. Japanese officials say the United States ignores the fact that Japan is the world's largest importer of farm products.
But over the years, beef and oranges have become a symbolic issue in what the United States sees as Japanese foot-dragging in efforts to solve the trade imbalance.
Japan's politically influential farm groups say their members' livelihood would be threatened by an end to the import barriers. Government officials want market-opening steps taken gradually, although opinion within the government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party on how quickly to move still is divided.
Talks on Monday failed to iron out differences.
U.S. officials say the barriers mean Japanese consumers pay two to four times what their American counterparts pay for beef and citrus fruit.
The quasi-governmental Livestock Industry Promotion Corp. says American square-cut chuck beef had a wholesale price here of 831 yen a kilogram (about $3 a pound) last month, while a similar cut from Australia had a wholesale price of 757 yen a kilogram ($2.74 a pound). Retail prices are substantially higher.
Australia has made plain that it will seek to ensure that any Japan-U.S. agreements on beef are not made at Australia's expense.
Under the expiring agreement, Japan raised its annual quota for high-grade beef imports from the United States from 31,000 tons in 1983 to 58,400 tons in 1987, while raising its quota on orange imports by 1,100 tons a year.
Meanwhile, it raised its overall quota for beef imports from 141,000 tons in 1984 to 177,000 tons in 1987.
In fiscal 1986, which ended last March, Japan imported 188,000 tons of beef--including 63,000 tons from the United States and 113,000 tons from Australia. Of its orange imports, 99% came from the United States.
In a related development, negotiators from the United States and Japan met again in Washington in an effort to resolve the two countries' dispute over participation of U.S. contractors in Japanese construction projects.
Both sides predicted that the meeting between U.S. deputy trade representative Michael B. Smith and Ichiro Ozawa, deputy chief secretary of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's Cabinet, would last much of the day. Neither would give specific details or say when the talks might conclude or whether agreement was expected.