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Japan may be easing position as deadline looms

As American sanctions loomed against Japanese luxury cars, Japan's trade minister showed new willingness to expand foreign access to the Japanese automotive market, American officials said early today. But it was not clear whether Tokyo would offer enough to persuade President Clinton to call off the tariffs set to go into effect tonight in the United States.

The sudden flexibility by the Japanese minister of international trade and industry, Ryutaro Hashimoto, clearly took American officials by surprise. Hashimoto and Mickey Kantor, the U.S. trade representative, met three times Tuesday, ending their final session at 1:45 a.m. today, Geneva time. A Japanese official said the negotiators planned to meet again at 11 a.m. (5 a.m., Eastern time).

When the final session broke up today, it was not clear if the talks had reached the final stage of dealing with the most contentious issues, including commitments by Japan's automakers to buy more American-made components.

If an agreement comes together, it would hinge on a side document, agreed to by Japan's automakers but not signed by the Japanese government, that would lay out a series of "voluntary plans" for increased purchases of American auto parts.

Japanese officials said that the United States had proposed to word any such separate agreement in a way that assures the Japanese car industry that it would not be subject to penalties even if the car manufacturers failed to meet a series of benchmarks set out in the agreement. Those benchmarks would be intended to verify that Japan's auto industry was buying an ever-increasing number of American components.

The feverish late-hours maneuvering was a marked turnaround from the negotiating earlier Tuesday. In the morning, top administration officials in Washington had joined in a conference call with Kantor at which he described, in very pessimistic terms, his first negotiating session with Hashimoto.

But a few hours later, Hashimoto's tone changed, and he discussed in great detail a paper handed to him by Kantor that laid out what one American official called "creative alternatives."

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