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During the 1960s and 1970s, imports grew in tandem with exports, at an average annual rate of 15.4 percent during the 1960s and 22.2 percent during the 1970s. In a sense, import growth over much of this period was constrained by exports, because exports generated the foreign exchange to purchase the imports. During the 1980s, however, import growth lagged far behind exports, at an average annual rate of only 2.9 percent from 1981 to 1988. This low level of import growth led to the large trade surpluses that emerged in the 1980s.

In general, Japan has not imported an unusually large amount as a share of its GNP, but it has been highly dependent on imports for a variety of critical raw materials. Japan has by no means been the only industrialized nation dependent on imported raw materials, but it has depended on imports for a wider variety of materials, and often for a higher share of its needs for these materials. The country imported, for example, 50 percent of its caloric intake of food and about 30 percent of the total value of food consumed in the late 1980s. It also depended on imports for about 85 percent of its total energy needs (including all of its petroleum and 89 percent of its coal) and nearly all of its iron, copper, lead, and nickel.

The long-term growth in imports was facilitated by several major factors. The most important was general growth in the Japanese economy and income levels. Rising real incomes increased demand for imports, both those consumed directly and those entering into production. Another factor was the shift in the economy toward greater reliance on imported raw materials. Primary energy sources in the late 1940s, for example, were domestic coal and charcoal. The shift to imported oil and coal as major energy sources did not come until the late 1950s and 1960s. The small size and poor quality of many of the mineral deposits in Japan, combined with innovations in ocean transportation, such as bulk ore carriers, meant that as the economy grew, demand outstripped domestic supply and cheaper imports were utilized.

The price of imports was also a factor in their growth. In 1973 Japan's import price index was at essentially the same level as in 1955, partly because of the appreciation of the yen after 1971, which reduced the yen price of imports, but also because of the reduced costs of ocean shipping and stable prices for food and raw materials. For the rest of the 1970s, however, import prices skyrocketed, climbing 219 percent from 1973 to 1980. This dramatic price rise, especially for petroleum but by no means confined to it, was responsible for the rapid growth of the dollar value of imports during the 1970s, despite the slower growth of the economy. During the 1980s, import prices fell again, especially for petroleum, dropping by 44 percent from 1980 to 1988. Reflecting these price movements, the dollar value of petroleum imports rose from about US$2.8 billion in 1970 to nearly US$58 billion in 1980, and then fell a low of US$26 billion in 1988 before making a slight recovery to US$41 billion in 1990 (see table 28, Appendix).

A third factor affecting imports was trade liberalization. Reduced tariff rates and a weakening of other overt trade barriers meant that imports should have been able to compete more fully in Japan's markets. The extent to which this was true, however, was subject to much debate among analysts. The share of manufactured imports in GNP changed very little from 1970 to 1985, suggesting that falling import barriers had little impact on the propensity to purchase foreign products. Falling trade barriers might become more significant in the 1990s as liberalization continues.

Yet another factor determining import levels was the exchange rate. After the ending of the Bretton Woods System in 1971, the yen appreciated against the United States dollar and other currencies. The appreciation of the yen made imports less expensive to Japan, but it had a complex effect on total imports. Demand for raw material imports was not affected much by price changes (at least in the short run). Demand for manufactured goods, however, was more responsive to price changes. Much of the rapid increase in imports of manufactures after 1985, when the yen began to appreciate rapidly, can be attributed to this exchange-rate effect.

All factors combined led to the rapid growth of imports in the 1960s and 1970s and their very slow growth in the 1980s. Rapid economic growth combined with stable import prices and the shift toward imported raw materials brought high import growth in the 1960s. The big jump in raw material prices in the 1970s kept import growth high despite lower economic growth. In the 1980s, falling raw material prices, a relatively weak yen, and continued modest economic growth kept import growth low in the first half of the decade. Import growth finally accelerated in the second half of the 1980s, when raw material prices stopped falling and as the rise in the value of the yen encouraged manufactured imports.

Japan imported a wide range of products, although energy sources, raw materials, and food were the major items. Mineral fuels, for example, rose from under 17 percent of all imports in 1960 to a high of nearly 50 percent in 1980. They had declined to under 21 percent by 1988 (see table 29, Appendix). A small increase was experienced by 1991 when mineral fuel imports increased to 23 percent. These shifts show the enormous impact of price changes on imports. Swings in imports of other raw materials were far less dramatic, and many declined over time as a share of total imports. Metal ores and scrap, for example, declined steadily from 15 percent in 1960 to less than 5 percent in 1988 and less than 4 percent in 1991, reflecting the changing structure of the economy, which moved away from basic metal manufactures to higher valueadded industries. Textile materials also dropped from 17 percent of total imports in 1960 to just under 2 percent in 1988 and just over 1 percent in 1991, as the textile industry became less important and imports of finished textiles increased. Foodstuffs, however, were relatively steady as a share of imports, rising from just over 12 percent in 1960 to 15.5 percent in 1988. By 1991 a slight decline, 14.5 percent, was experienced.

Manufactured goods--chemicals, machinery and equipment, and miscellaneous commodities--gained as a share of imports, but the variation among them was considerable. Manufactures were about 22 percent of total imports in 1960, remained at just under 23 percent in 1980, and then expanded to 49 percent by 1988. By 1991 they were just over 45 percent. Imports of textiles, nonferrous metals, and iron and steel products all showed significant gains, for the same reasons that the raw material imports to produce them had declined. However, chemical and machinery and equipment imports showed little increase in share until after 1985.

The heavy dependency on raw materials that characterized Japan until the mid-1980s reflected both their absence in Japan and the process of import-substitution industrialization, in which Japan favored domestic industries over imports. The desire to restrict manufactured imports was intensified by the knowledge that the nation needed strong manufacturing industries to generate exports to pay for needed raw material imports. Only with the appreciation of the yen after 1985, and the drop in petroleum and other raw material prices, did this sense of vulnerability ease. These trends were reflected in the rising share of manufactures in imports in the late 1980s.

Data as of January 1994

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