CHICAGO - Dozens of screws, bolts, nuts and various widgets were spread across the table in Fuji Component Parts USA Inc.'s booth at a Japanese-U.S. auto parts trade show here this month.
But the Fuji representatives were not selling the parts. They were trying to buy them.
'No, we don't make anything,' said Ryan Tubbs, a Fuji Component sales manager. The company is a Tier 1 supplier to Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc. in Lafayette, Ind., and other automakers. The company sources parts and resells them to auto plants.
But right now, many of those parts are being imported from Japan. What Fuji wants, Tubbs says, is to find an American source.
This is not surprising. Japanese automakers and their Japanese suppliers have been trying to source content in North America since the early 1980s, when they began building cars and trucks here.
What is surprising is that nearly two decades later, the search is still going on - and not altogether successfully.
WHERE ARE THEY?
While North America is crowded with leading technology and automotive product suppliers, the purchasing managers at some Japanese firms say they are unable to find all of the parts they want here.
Right now, for example, Toyota Motor Corp. is stymied in its effort to find an American steel bar screw machining supplier. Purchasing agents have contacted machining companies nationwide but have not been able to find one that can deliver exactly what Toyota wants for its new North American-built transmissions.
One Toyota buyer said that in desperation, he approached his competitors at Nissan Motor Co. to see whether they could recommend anyone. According to the Toyota buyer, Nissan said it had been unsuccessfully looking, too.
'There is still good opportunity for U.S. companies,' said Nobumasa Take, chief executive director for the Chicago office of the Japan External Trade Organization, or JETRO. In October, JETRO brought together more than 200 U.S. and Japanese companies for a trade show to stimulate U.S-Japanese business.
Such conferences have been going on for a decade, but Take believes they are still as necessary as ever.
'Many large companies have been successful doing business together,' he said. 'But there is still a need to bring small and medium-sized companies together.'
Defining success in U.S.-Japanese business relations is an ongoing challenge.
In public, the Japanese automakers in North America are proud of the nearly $32 billion they spent last year on U.S. parts and materials.
Privately, some wonder if that's still not enough.
In fact, despite a decade in which their sourcing of U.S. auto parts increased tenfold, some now fear another wave of trade pressure from the U.S. government to spend more money on U.S. factories, parts and materials.
The moment is a dicey one for the Japanese. Last week, U.S. and Japanese trade officials returned to the negotiating table to begin discussing the future of their 1995 Framework Agreement, an accord reached during tense times between the U.S. and Japanese industries which, among other things, called for Japan to open its market to U.S. vehicle and parts imports. The pact asked Japan to ease restrictions on aftermarket parts sales and import regulations and to loosen the rules on how new cars are sold.
The agreement expires Dec. 31. The Japanese would like to see it simply go away, believing it is a dinosaur.
U.S. industry and government officials are not so sure.
Robert Reck, director of the U.S. Commerce Department's automotive parts and suppliers division, believes there is reason to extend the 1995 agreement in some form. 'The industry still has some concerns,' Reck said, begging off from discussing details of the U.S. position on the trade talks. 'It's important to keep the progress going between the two governments.'
Asked whether he felt the Japanese auto industry had lived up to the 1995 agreement, he replied with some hesitation, 'To the letter of it.'
The 1995 agreement came at the barrel of a gun. President Clinton had ordered a 100 percent tariff on imported Japanese cars after the United States became exasperated with its soaring automotive parts trade deficit with Japan. In 1995, the deficit reached $13 billion.
Five years later, despite continued investment in North American production by Japan's automakers, the parts trade deficit is again at $13 billion, up from $10.9 billion in fiscal year 1999.
Last summer the Auto Parts Advisory Committee, a supplier-industry organization charged with directing the American government on automotive trade issues, called efforts by the Japanese industry 'insufficient' and accused the Japanese of 'backsliding.' The group urged the government to press Japan for more U.S. access to its automotive original equipment market and aftermarket parts channels. It asked that Japan take steps to make U.S. corporate mergers and acquisitions in Japan easier.
Privately, some Japanese industry officials have been incredulous. The Japanese industry in 2000 is nothing like it was in 1995, they point out. Responding to the Auto Parts Advisory Committee's recommendations earlier this year, William Duncan, director of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association in the United States, observed that they 'seem to have missed the sea change taking place both in Japan's auto market and globally.'