Leading Article: A relationship that is changing fast

Click to follow
JUST before the opening of Jurassic Park, new research gave unexpected weight to the scientific assumptions underlying Michael Crichton's novel. Mr Crichton, a millionaire American thriller writer, was duly lauded for his prescience. He may not be so lucky with Rising Sun, a detective novel about Japan's alarming economic power over the United States, the film of which opened last month. For Mr Crichton's alarmist view of relations between the world's two most powerful countries no longer looks right.

At first sight, some old problems seem to be back. Japan's bilateral trade surplus with America - the excess of its exports to the United States over its imports from that country - is back up in the stratosphere, at almost dollars 140bn ( pounds 97bn) in the 12 months to June. The Clinton administration is more inclined to talk tough on trade issues with Japan than its predecessor. The exchange rate has teetered in recent days at just over 100 yen to the dollar. Japanese nationalists will see a yen that is worth more than a US cent as an important psychological symbol of their country's economic muscle. But closer examination suggests the American anxiety of the Eighties is outdated.

In the long run, a sustainable high yen will be good for Japan. The one-cent yen is a sign of the progress that the Japanese economy has made over the past 10 years. Shrugging off its sharp appreciation against the dollar between 1985 and 1987 (which temporarily cut the Japanese current-account surplus and the US deficit), Japan's GNP has grown more than that of any other industrial country since 1989. Even the Tokyo stock market has made a modest recovery from its recent crash, back past the 20,000 mark.

But the short-term effects of a high yen will be painful, for Japan's currency has already risen 38 per cent against those of its trading partners in a year. In any case, times are already tough. Japanese companies are suffering badly from the recession, laying off staff and paying out less in profits to their shareholders. Many of the US companies, office buildings, resorts and golf courses that they bought in the late Eighties are now worth much less than their purchase prices. And Japan is having to ask fundamental questions about links between companies and about the hours put in by employees. The answers to those questions will at first have the effect of raising costs rather than reducing them.

Makers of policy on both sides of the Pacific must now try to manage a relationship that is changing fast. Americans are less inclined than before to see economics as a zero-sum game: they now realise that their own prosperity is enhanced rather than threatened by a rich and growing Japan. The Soviet Union, which provided the threat that forced Japan and the United States together, is no more.

On the other hand, the removal from power of the corrupt, inscrutable Liberal Democratic Party offers opportunities. If the electoral system is reformed, urban consumers will have more say, and the more open trading policies that Washington desires may come quickly. Even as the yen hardens - some commentators believe it may reach 88 to the dollar before the end of the year - Japan is changing, and likewise the nature of its difficulties with the United States.