TOKYO—Just as Washington successfully wraps Canada and Mexico into a fresh free-trade framework, Japan is beginning to squirm under the prospect of talks now turning trans-Pacific.
Japan breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when President Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed in New York to begin negotiations on a bilateral trade accord.
In so doing, Japan dodged the threat of a dreaded 25 percent tariff on Japan-made vehicles imported to the U.S., as the U.S. said it would hold off during talks.
The initial response from Japan was a measured praise. Akio Toyoda, in his role as chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, welcomed the restraint on tariffs.
He stuck to a scripted mantra about the importance of free trade and the billions of dollars Japanese auto makers have invested in the U.S. over the years.
"A free and fair trade environment and Japan-U.S. cooperation based on mutual trust are indispensable for both Japanese and American auto industries," he said in a statement issued after the summit. "We expect the two countries will engage in forward-looking negotiations."
But Japanese commentators warned that the relief is ephemeral, at best.
Automobiles and auto parts account for the bulk of the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. But experts say trade deals will do little to increase the sales of American-made vehicles in the Land of the Rising Sun, where they are still saddled with the 1980s image of being big gas-guzzlers of suspect quality. Last year, Chevrolet sold 809 vehicles in Japan, Cadillac 580 and Chrysler just 213.
Jeep was the top U.S. brand there, moving 10,102 vehicles.
Ford has quit the market.
The coming U.S.-Japan trade talks likely will pit Japan's auto makers against its farmers. The U.S. may be able to make a bigger dent in the trade deficit through better access to Japan's protected food sector. By leaning on autos, U.S. negotiators may win agricultural concessions.
Japan's auto industry isn't shy about saying what sector should prevail in that trade-off.
At last month's regular JAMA news conference, Naoki Ishii, head of the industry group's taxation and trade committee, laid down the argument in stark numbers.
Japan's auto industry, he said, employs some 5.39 million people in Japan, or about 8.3 percent of the country's work force. It accounts for about 21 percent of Japan's exports in value, about 23 percent of the country's capital expenditure and 24 percent of its r&d investment.
That engine of growth is worth fighting for, he said.
"We are working hard and definitely supporting Japan's economy," Ishii said. "I don't want to sound conceited here, but I do believe the automobile industry is a key industry in Japan."
Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.