Trade policy of Japan

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Export policy of Japan

For many years, export promotion was a large issue in Japanese government policy. Government officials recognized that Japan needed to import to grow and develop, and it needed to generate exports to pay for those imports. After 1945, Japan had difficulty exporting enough to pay for its imports until the mid-1960s, and resulting deficits were the justification for export promotion programs and import restrictions.

The belief in the need to promote exports is early strong and part of Japan’s self-image as a “processing nation.” A processing nation must import raw materials but is able to pay for the imports by adding value to them and exporting some of the output. Nations grow stronger economically by moving up the industrial ladder to produce products with greater value added to the basic inputs. Rather than letting markets accomplish this movement on their own, the Japanese government felt the economy should be guided in this direction through industrial policy.

Japan’s methods of promoting exports has taken two paths. The first was to develop world-class industries that can initially substitute for imports and then compete in international markets. The second was to provide incentives for firms to export.

During the first two decades after World War II, export incentives took the form of a combination of tax relief and government assistance to build export industries. After joining the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1964, however, Japan had to drop its major export incentive — the total exemption of export income from taxes — to comply with IMF procedures. It did maintain into the 1970s, however, special tax treatment of costs for market development and export promotion.

Once chronic trade deficits came to an end in the mid-1960s, the need for export promotion policies diminished. Virtually all export tax incentives were eliminated over the course of the 1970s. Even JETRO, whose initial function is to assist smaller firms with overseas marketing, saw its role shift toward import promotion and other activities. In the 1980s, Japan continued to use industrial policy to promote the growth of new, more sophisticated industries, but direct export promotion measures were no longer part of the policy package.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of policies to restrain exports in certain industries. The great success of some Japanese export industries created a backlash in other countries, either because of their success per se or because of allegations of unfair competitive practices. Under General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) guidelines, nations have been reluctant to raise tariffs or impose import quotas. Quotas violate the guidelines, and raising tariffs goes against the general trend among industrial nations. Instead, they have resorted to convincing the exporting country to “voluntarily” restrain exports of the offending product. In the 1980s, Japan was quite willing to carry out such export restraints. Among Japan’s exports to the United States, steel, color television sets, and automobiles all were subject to such restraints at various times.

Import policy of Japan

Japan began the postwar period with heavy import barriers. Virtually all products were subject to government quotas, many faced high tariffs, and MITI had authority over the allocation of the foreign exchange that companies needed to pay for any import. These policies were justified at the time by the weakened position of Japanese industry and the country’s chronic trade deficits.

By the late 1950s, Japan’s international trade had regained its prewar level, and its balance of payments displayed sufficient strength for its rigid protectionism to be increasingly difficult to justify. The IMF and GATT strongly pressured Japan to free its commerce and international payments system. Beginning in the 1960s, the government adopted a policy of gradual trade liberalization, easing import quotas, reducing tariff rates, freeing transactions in foreign exchange, and admitting foreign capital into Japanese industries, which continued through the 1980s.

The main impetus for change throughout has been international obligation, that is, response to foreign, rather than domestic, pressure. The result has been a prolonged, reluctant process of reducing barriers, which has frustrated many of Japan’s trading partners.

Japan has been a participant in the major rounds of tariffcutting negotiations under the GATT framework — the Kennedy Round completed in 1967, the Tokyo Round completed in 1979, and the Uruguay Round completed in 1993. As a result of these agreements, tariffs in Japan fell to a low level on average. Upon complete implementation of the Tokyo Round agreement, Japan had the lowest average tariff level among industrial countries—2.5 percent, compared with 4.2 percent for the United States and 4.6 percent for the European Union (known as the European Community before

Trade History of Japan

Japanese exports grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, but growth slowed considerably during the 1980s. Over these decades, both the composition and the reputation of products from Japan changed profoundly.

Because of the success of certain exports, Japan is often viewed as a heavily export-dependent nation. As an example, just under half of all automobiles produced in Japan were exported.

The growth of Japanese exports during the 1960s and 1970s was truly phenomenal. Beginning in 1960 at US$4.1 billion, merchandise exports grew at an average annual rate of 16.9% in the 1960s and at an average annual rate of 21% in the 1970s. From 1981 to 1988, however, export growth averaged 11.3% per year, about one-half the level of the 1970s. By 1990 merchandise exports reached US$286.9 billion.

The growth in exports can be viewed in terms of both pull and push factors. The pull came from increasing demand for Japanese products as the United States and other foreign markets grew and as trade barriers in major market countries were reduced. Another pull factor was the price competitiveness of Japanese products. From 1960 to 1970, Japan’s export price index increased by only 4%, reflecting the high rate of productivity growth in the manufacturing industries producing export products. Inflation was higher in the 1970s, but export prices were still only 45% higher in 1980 than in 1970 (growing at an average annual rate of less than 4%), considerably lower than world inflation. The 1980s began with another short burst of inflation because of oil price increases in 1979, but by 1988 Japanese export prices were actually 23% lower than in 1980, offsetting much of the price increase of the 1980s. This record enhanced the international price competitiveness of Japanese products.

During the 1950s, Japanese export products had a reputation for poor quality. However, this image changed dramatically during the 1970s. Japanese steel, ships, watches, television receivers, automobiles, semiconductors, and many other goods developed a reputation for being manufactured to high standards and under strict quality control. The Japanese were the acknowledged world leaders for quality and design in the 1980s for some of these products. This rise in product quality also increased demand for Japanese exports.

The push behind Japan’s exports came from manufacturers. Many recognized that to reach efficient levels of production they needed to adopt a global approach. Manufacturers concentrated on the domestic market (often protected from foreign products) until they reached internationally competitive levels and domestic markets were saturated. Often helped by the large general trading companies, manufacturers aggressively attacked foreign markets when they felt able to compete globally. This push factor partially accounted for the extraordinarily high level of export growth in the 1970s, when the domestic economy slowed; increasing exports was a way for manufacturers to continue expanding despite the more sluggish domestic market. Japanese manufacturers were part of larger conglomerates, the zaibatsu, which provided financing of activities. Thus, they could concentrate on gaining high market shares, without the need to achieve high profits in the process.

Exports included a wide variety of products, virtually all of which were processed to some degree. After the war, the composition of exports shifted through technological progression. Primary products, light manufactures, and crude items, which predominated during the 1950s, were gradually eclipsed by heavy industrial goods, complex machinery and equipment, and consumer durables, which required large capital investments and advanced technology to produce. This process was illustrated vividly in the case of textiles, which composed more than 30% of Japanese exports in 1960, but less than 3% by 1988. Iron and steel products, which had grown rapidly in the 1960s to become nearly 15% of exports by 1970, declined to less than 6% of exports by 1988. Over the same period, however, exports of motor vehicles rose from under 2% to over 18% of the total. In 1991 Japan’s major exports were motor vehicles, office machinery, scientific and optical equipment, and semiconductors and other electronic components.

Trade Balance of Japan

Between 1960 and 1964, Japan incurred annual trade deficits (based on a customs clearance for imports) ranging from US$400 million to US$1.6 billion. The era of chronic trade deficit ended in 1965, and by 1969, with a positive balance of almost US$1 billion, Japan was widely regarded as a surplus trading nation. In 1971 the surplus reached US$4.3 billion, and its rapid increase was a main factor behind the United States decision to devalue the dollar and pressure Japan to revalue the yen—events that led quickly to the end of the Bretton Woods System of fixed exchange rates. By 1972 Japan’s surplus had climbed to US$5.1 billion, despite the reevaluation of the yen in 1971.

The jump in prices of petroleum and other raw materials during 1973 plunged the balance of trade into deficit, and in 1974 the deficit reached US$6.6 billion. With strong export growth, however, this was reversed to a surplus of US$2.4 billion in 1976. The surplus reached a record US$18.2 billion in 1978, promoting considerable tension between the United States and Japan.

In 1979 petroleum prices jumped again, and Japan’s trade balance again turned to deficit, reaching US$10.7 billion in 1980. Once again, rapid export growth and stagnant imports returned Japan quickly to surplus by 1981. For the next five years, Japan’s trade surplus grew explosively, to a peak of US$82.7 billion in 1986. This unprecedented trade surplus resulted from the moderate annual rise in exports and the drop in imports noted earlier. Underlying these trade developments was the weakness of the yen against other currencies, which enhanced export price competitiveness and dampened import demand.

After 1986 the dollar value of Japan’s trade surplus declined, to US$77.6 billion in 1988. This decline came as the yen finally appreciated strongly against the dollar (beginning in 1985) and as a rapid rise in manufactured imports began to offset the large drop in the value of raw material imports. By 1990 the trade surplus had declined to US$52.1 billion.

Underlying trends throughout the 1970s and 1980s were the fundamental strength of Japan’s export sector. Under the fixed exchange rates of the 1960s, exports became progressively more competitive on world markets, lifting the country out of the persistent trade deficits that had continued into the early years of the decade. During the 1970s, rapid export expansion extricated the country from the deficits immediately following the two oil price shocks of 1973 and 1979. Continuing export strength then drove the nation to the extraordinary trade surpluses of the 1980s, as the temporary burden of costly oil imports waned.

Japan’s fundamental strength in world markets required its fear of vulnerability and opposition to manufactured imports to be reassessed. In the early 1980s, fear of vulnerability remained strong and fed the continuation of policies and behavior that kept manufactured imports unusually low compared with those of the other industrial nations. Only with the large decline in raw material prices and the explosion of trade surpluses did policies and behavior begin to change.

After more than 30 years had trade surpluses, in 2011 the trade deficit came to 2.49 trillion yen ($32 billion), but the previous trade deficit came in 1980 was still a record by 2.6 trillion yen.