The Toshiba Affair

Only hours before Japan’s trade minister left for a fence-mending trip to Washington, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone condemned a Japanese company’s illegal shipment of vital defense technology to the Soviet Union as “a grave act of treachery not only toward America but toward the Japanese people.”

Nakasone’s forthright statement is the most encouraging evidence yet that, after a slow start, the Japanese are finally treating the Toshiba affair with the gravity that it deserves.

Several months ago U.S. officials discovered that the Toshiba Machine Co., an affiliate of the giant Toshiba Corp., had conspired with Norway’s Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk to ship computerized milling machines to the Soviets. The Pentagon says that the Soviets used the machines to manufacture propellers that have made their submarines quieter and harder to detect. To counteract the Soviet advance may cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.


Because the Japanese depend so heavily on U.S. military forces to offset growing Soviet naval power in the Pacific, the transaction also compromised Japan’s security. Unlike the Norwegians, however, Japanese government and business were slow to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. That changed abruptly when an angry U.S. Senate voted to ban the import of all Toshiba products for two to five years. Since the company’s U.S. salesof items ranging from television sets and personal computers to semiconductors and microwave ovens run about $2.5 billion a year, such action would be potentially disastrous to Toshiba.

The Toshiba Corp.'s two top executives resigned as a sign of regret. According to Business Week, Japan’s top electronics firms are withdrawing from meaningful participation in a Moscow trade fair where they normally turn out in force.

While the punitive Senate amendment certainly succeeded in getting Japanese attention, crude retaliation of that sort would be unwise, since it would feed anti-Americanism in Japan and harm the areas of the U.S. economy that have become dependent on Toshiba components. As both the U.S. and Japanese governments have been wise enough to recognize, it is more important to join in positive corrective measures.

The Administration, for example, wants Japan to apply its technology to help overcome the challenge of the quieter Soviet submarines. The Japanese could also help not only by tightening their own laws against the diversion of sensitive technology to the Soviets but also by joining Washington in an effort to change the rules on East-West trade restrictions that Western industrial countries follow so that they can pay less attention to minor transgressions and more to genuinely harmful diversions of technology to the Soviet Union.