"Anyway," said my Tokyo taxi driver, "you've got to admire his nerve." He was talking about Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whose 16-month-old ''Action Program" - designed to open Japan to foreign imports and thus answer intensified complaints by the country's trading partners by significantly slashing trade surpluses - is proving a failure.
One would expect more from a prime minister whose party not long ago was returned to power with a thumping majority. But his promises to political leaders of the United States and the Common Market nations certainly have not been realized and there is little evidence to indicate that they will be in the coming year.Although the Action Program was given a cautious welcome abroad when it was announced (July 30, 1985), there were few in Japan who really had anticipated that it would produce results - at least not for some considerable time.
The barrier facing this simplistic program, the sixth or seventh government scheme put in place over the past few years or so, is nothing more than one posed by a national psychology against buying imported goods on a volume basis.
All the same, a great opportunity for radically altering the whole face of Japan's export-oriented economy appears to have been lost once again - unless at some point the vague provisions of the vaunted Maekawa Report are put in practice.
Surely this is not possible in the near future.
Frankly, opposition from the government bureaucrats, many of the nation's industrialists and even at the grass roots level is overwhelmingly against drastically opening the country's markets to more imports.
Japan's annual worldwide surplus, which was close to $60 billion in 1985 ($50 billion with the United States), is likely to top $70 billion by the end of this month ($58 billion with the United States) as a direct result of the piecemeal enforcement of Mr. Nakasone's latest program.
This could be more than a minor tragedy for Japan and everyone else, given the current belief that, despite the attention being paid in Washington to the Iran-Contras arms sales controversy, an anti-Japan trade bill quite likely will pass through Congress next year - since the protectionist-inclined Democrats will control both the House and the Senate. Mr. Nakasone and his colleagues shouldn't be surprised if and when this occurs.
However, even before such legislation is introduced, according to reports reaching Tokyo, there is an excellent chance that the Reagan administration will decide at some point to abandon the U.S.-Japan monetary cooperation pact (put together by Treasury Secretary James Baker and Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa last October) in order to allow the yen to once again resume its sharp appreciation against the dollar.
In this case, the Japanese currency can be expected to appreciate much more than the 50 percent gain registered since September 1985 - making it extremely difficult for the country's exporters to compete with the products of the newly industrializing nations on global markets.
Should this happen, Mr. Nakasone would find himself under intense pressures from Japanese business interests to move quickly to push for a prompt restoration of the previous arrangement. But even if he could somehow manage to persuade President Reagan to provide a little more time for his market-opening program to produce results, although this seems doubtful, the wily Japanese prime minister obviously cannot delay this type of action indefinitely.
Do the prime minister and his advisers know what they are doing or, rather, not doing? Can they repair the situation before economic relations with the United States spiral downward to the danger line? These questions are difficult to answer in view of the tendency of his administration to provide almost endless excuses for Japan's continuing huge yearly surpluses.
No one can say where or when bilateral economic relations will hit bottom, but so far the Japanese government seems to ignore the fact that fully 85 percent of the country's annual trade surplus is accounted for by shipments to the U.S. market.
The man most responsible for delivering advice to the Japanese government on a regular basis is Mike Mansfield, Washington's ambassador to Tokyo. Only recently he reminded the Japanese that the United States is Japan's biggest market. And he put it more bluntly: "Aren't you concerned about keeping that market as open as possible?" he queried. "Why, ask the numerous congressmen and private businessmen, both resident and traveling through Japan, why must we negotiate, argue, or plead for the same opportunities that are already granted to Japanese firms operating in the United States?"
In the face of all this, one wonders why Mr. Nakasone has not come up with more effective measures to slash his nation's steadily rising trade surpluses. He surely must realize that President Reagan may no longer be able to muster the congressional strength to sustain a veto of protectionist legislation.
The ambassador's views were given powerful support by Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who recently visited Tokyo. He was accompanied by Bob Byrd, the Democratic Senate leader, and Lloyd Bentsen, the incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. All three stressed to their Japanese hosts that trade legislation will receive the highest priority on Congress' agenda when it convenes next month.
There can be no doubt but that strong anti-Japanese trade legislation passing through Congress will touch off an ugly storm in Tokyo, almost as if no one has been warning for years of the rapidly approaching lightning-struck clouds.
So far, Mr. Nakasone seems more or less comfortable with his high-stakes gamble with the world's trading system. Either that or he and his advisers
somehow fail to understand the true nature of the threat.
Some economic analysts in Tokyo tend to believe that the latter is probably true, most likely based upon information stemming from Japan's highly paid U.S. political advisers in Washington. If this advice proves wrong, the Nakasone administration could be forced to switch abruptly to a much more drastic stimulus for imports whether the country's business leaders like it or not - or be hit by massive U.S. retaliation.
In this event, such measures could take many more months to work their way through the Japanese economy. The clear and present danger is that they would prove too little and too late once again. Indeed, the zeal of the Nakasone government in trying to open Japan's markets is subject to serious doubts.