Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone resisted pressure from the United States in the 1980s to open up the Japanese market to imports, according to diplomatic records declassified Thursday.
The push by the administration of former President Ronald Reagan on imports of U.S. beef and oranges was resisted by Nakasone, who proposed a “cooling-off period” in trade talks during a January 1983 summit, the records show.
The U.S. fight to access the Japanese market had become a symbol of the economic friction between the countries in the 1980s over their hefty trade imbalance.
Nakasone apparently proposed shelving negotiations out of concern that making a commitment to free trade during his visit to the U.S — his first as prime minister — could damage his party’s chances in an Upper House election that year.
Farmers, who made up a significant support base of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, were wary of the potential for beef and orange concessions to open the door to U.S. imports of key products like rice.
Japan’s economic growth and technological gains after World War II saw cheap Japanese imports flood the U.S. market, fueling discontent among U.S. companies and trade unions and leading to a wave of protectionism to take hold in Congress.
The issue drove a wedge between the countries in the 1970s and 1980s. While Washington wanted access to the Japanese market for its agricultural products, Tokyo imposed its own limits on the steel, textile and automobile products it exported to the United States, seeking to avoid worsening the friction.
The negotiations were halted until April of that year, but the two governments ended up agreeing to raise the import ceiling on beef and oranges the following year.
The ceiling was abolished in 1988, a harbinger of moves to open up the market for other agricultural products.
According to a file dated Jan. 19, 1983, Reagan told Nakasone that the U.S. Congress was stepping up pressure over trade issues, and if left unresolved there was a danger of slipping into unrestrained protectionism.
Nakasone’s opposition included jokingly asserting that Japanese people were not interested in oranges anyway, finding them “difficult to peel and sour,” the records show.
At a further meeting open to officials from both sides, U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block said beef and citrus fruits had become a symbol of the interests of U.S. farmers.
Nakasone responded that opposition to free trade was strong in Japan, highlighted by a 10,000-strong protest by farmers in the lead up to his visit to the U.S.
Using a baseball metaphor, Nakasone said he found himself “with the bases loaded and no out,” and Reagan replied he was in the same situation, according to the file.
“It’s realistic for us to put a cooling-off period in place for a while and entrust (the matter) to discussions between experts,” the file quoted Nakasone as saying.
Responding to the release of the file, Nakasone said in a statement Thursday that it was critical for him at the time to “get out of the Japanese diplomatic model of subservience to the United States and embark on a route of autonomous diplomacy with an Asian background.”
“With the security threat posed by the Soviet Union at the time, the most important diplomatic task was building relationships of trust with the United States, China and South Korea,” Nakasone said.
Nakasone’s visit came just two months after he took office in November 1982. At a breakfast with Reagan, the U.S. leader proposed they call each other by their first names, kick-starting the “Ron-Yasu” friendship that would underpin a strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
“I devoted myself most to building a relationship of trust leader-to-leader, but I always kept in mind that I was a member of Asia,” Nakasone said in the statement.