Under US pressure on trade, Japan scrambles ahead of White House visit

TOKYO: Japan is scrambling to respond to rising pressure on trade from US President Donald Trump, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planning to meet the head of Toyota Motor Corp this week and business lobby Keidanren setting up a Trump task force.

Abe will visit Washington next month for talks with Trump at which the US leader is expected to seek quick progress toward a two-way trade deal with Japan and discuss the automotive sector.

Two sources told Reuters Abe would meet with Toyota Chief Executive Akio Toyoda, with one of them saying the meeting would take place on Friday.

In a phone call with Abe on Saturday, Trump reiterated his pledge to create jobs in the United States and asked that the Japanese auto industry contribute, the Nikkei business daily reported, quoting unidentified Japanese government officials.

The two leaders discussed the automotive industry, senior government spokesman Koichi Hagiuda told reporters after the phone call, without giving details. A White House statement said the two "committed to deepen the bilateral trade and investment relationship."

Abe has left open the door to discussing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States but some officials worry Japan would have little to gain while coming under intense pressure from Washington. Bilateral talks on specific sectors such as autos, however, are an option, officials have said.

Trump, who last week dropped out of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership pushed by his predecessor Barack Obama and favoured by Abe, has also attacked Japan's auto market as closed in an echo of criticism heard decades ago.

Japanese officials have rejected that criticism, saying Japan does not impose tariffs on US auto imports nor put up discriminatory non-tariff barriers.


Toyota has come under fire from Trump for plans, announced in 2015, to shift production of its Corolla to Mexico from Canada. Earlier this month, Japan's top automaker said it would invest $10 billion in the United States over the next five years, the same as the previous five years.

Toyota says it directly employed about 40,000 American workers as of December 2015 and indirectly more than 200,000 if both dealers and suppliers are included.

Japan's business lobby Keidanren wants to beef up its information gathering and analysis of the Trump administration's policies while also conveying data on Japan Inc's importance to the US economy, a Keidanren official said.

"We will create a task force the main purpose of which is to convey correct information about the contribution of Japanese firms in the United States," said another Keidanren official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to media.

Japan's government is already trying to give Trump's administration a crash course on its companies' contribution to US jobs and growth, with fact sheets showing, among other things, that Japanese companies created 839,000 jobs in America, second only to Britain.

Japanese media, meanwhile, have begun reminiscing about heated US-Japan auto talks in the mid-1990s, in which a last minute deal in June 1995 averted US tariffs on Japanese luxury cars when Japan's automakers crafted "voluntary plans" to boost purchases of US auto parts and expand production in the United States.