- EXTERNAL TRADE
An outstanding feature of Japan’s economic development after World War II was the rapid advance in overseas sales, even though the share of exports in the country’s gross national product generally remained relatively constant. However, from the point of view of individual industries and as a generator of growth, exports are much more important than their contribution to the national income suggests. Since the late 1960s, Japan has had a trade surplus nearly every year, with the size of the surplus often being the largest in the world.
Reasons for this spectacular export performance are the wide variety of Japan’s industrial output, the shift to products with a relatively high value added, the country’s export competitiveness, and the dominant position of its industry in a number of fields. However, Japanese exports face increasing challenges. Most notable is strong competition from Japan’s industrial neighbours China, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as from the countries of Southeast Asia. Other factors include protectionist sentiments among Japan’s chief trading partners, the valuation of the yen compared with that of other currencies, and a falloff in exports caused by the increased production of Japanese companies abroad. In addition, the global recession that began in 2007–08 is having a significant impact on Japan’s exports, notably of motor vehicles.
A major change in the composition of exports occurred in the late 20th century. Textiles and food products constituted a considerably decreased share of total exports, while exports of a wide variety of machinery and apparatuses (including electronic equipment and components) and transport equipment grew dramatically, together accounting for the largest proportion of exports. Other important exports included chemicals, chemical products, and metals. The United States is Japan’s largest export market, though in the early 21st century China’s position rose to rival that of the United States; other countries of East and Southeast Asia and the countries of the European Union (EU) are also important export destinations.
After World War II, Japan established relatively high tariffs and instituted restrictive nontariff barriers for many products in order to protect domestic markets. Consistently high trade surpluses led to mounting pressure by Japan’s trading partners—notably the United States—for Japan to open its domestic market to foreign goods. Imports have grown steadily as Japan’s trade structure has become more open. Because of Japan’s meagre natural resources, the bulk of its imports are fuels, raw materials, and foodstuffs. The major components of imported manufactured goods are machinery and allied products and chemicals. Japan’s largest suppliers include East and Southeast Asia (notably China), the Middle East, the United States, western Europe, and Australia.
- INTERNAL TRADE
Japan has a long-established and complex system of wholesale distribution and retail marketing, characterized by numerous intermediary levels in the distribution of goods and small, often family-run retail outlets. This system, for years threatened by Japan’s large department stores, also has been challenged by the growth of supermarket and discount-store chains and by mail-order sales and, more recently, online commerce. Sales traditionally have been transacted in cash, but the use of charge accounts and credit cards has become widespread.