On Friday, Japan notified the World Trade Organization that it was reserving the right to impose retaliatory tariffs against the United States in response to tariffs on steel and aluminum imports proposed by President Trump.
Japan has not yet filed a formal complaint with the W.T.O., but is signaling that it could impose the retaliatory measures if it does not gain tariff exemptions that it has been seeking from Washington.
For Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked hard to cultivate a close relationship with President Trump on the golf course and over the telephone, the preliminary notice to the W.T.O. was symbolically significant.
Until now, Japan has sidestepped any confrontation with the United States, even after it was the largest American ally to be left off a list of countries granted temporary exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs in March.
“This is Japan basically readying itself for a trade war,” said Jeffrey Wilson, a research fellow at the Perth USAsia Center at the University of Western Australia. “This is saying, ‘O.K., Japan can say no to the United States.’”
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said it would decide whether to impose counter tariffs on U.S. goods “after carefully examining the U.S. relevant measures and their impacts on Japanese industries.”
It said that the U.S. tariffs would result in duties of 50 billion yen on Japanese exports to the United States. It did not specify what U.S. products it would target for retaliatory tariffs.
Japan’s move comes as China and the United States have been trying to cool economic tensions between the two countries and avert a looming trade war.
It appears Japan may be going the other way. After weeks of trying to persuade Washington to grant an exemption from the steel and aluminum tariffs, Tokyo may also be trying to send a more strident message that it does not want to engage in bilateral trade talks.
The steel and aluminum tariffs are unlikely to put that much of a dent in Japan’s economy. The country’s steel exports to the United States represent just 5 percent of its total steel exports, and it produces very little aluminum. Officials have said that they expect American manufacturers to continue to demand the highly