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For the first time last year, Japanese automakers produced more vehicles in the United States than they shipped to this country, a Japanese auto association reports.

More than 1.8 million vehicles were produced in the United States for the fiscal year ended in January 1994, according to the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association. In the same year, Japan exported 1.5 million vehicles to the United States."The Japanese automotive companies have invested more than $11 billion in the U.S., creating more than 300,000 American jobs and becoming an important, positive economic force in communities across America," said JAMA's general director, William C. Duncan.

Japan has been under U.S. pressure to produce more cars in the United States, with more U.S. labor and parts in their vehicles, because Japanese exports account for $60 billion - more than 40 percent - of the U.S. trade deficit. More than half of that comes from sales of Japanese autos and auto parts in the United States.

The general trend has been to produce more Japanese cars in the United States, using American labor. The number of Americans employed by Japanese automakers in the United States more than tripled from 11,236 in 1987 to 37,435 in fiscal 1993, according to JAMA.

However, Steve Beckman, an international economist with the United Auto Workers, said JAMA's figures fail to address the low U.S. part content in Japanese automobiles.

Only 50 percent of the parts in Japanese cars manufactured in the United States are American, on average, Beckman said, and parts on autos shipped from Japan have near-zero U.S. content.

"We'd like to see 70 percent of the parts be U.S. parts on Japanese cars made in America - at least," he said.

He predicted that the U.S. trade imbalance with Japan, and its auto imbalance with Japan would be this year would be "larger probably than ever before." He said the U.S. trade deficit in autos with Japan probably would be $20 billion, while auto parts would add more than $12 billion to the deficit.

JAMA said that Japanese automakers' purchases of U.S. auto parts increased more than sixfold between 1986 and 1993 - from $2.49 billion to $15.54 billion. The number of U.S. parts suppliers approximately quadrupled during the same period, from 298 in 1986 to 1,245 in March 1994, JAMA said.

Japanese automakers own and operate seven auto manufacturing plants in the United States, which sometimes manufacture parts for American cars. The Japanese plants are: Honda, in Ohio; Nissan, in Tennessee; Mitsubishi, in Illinois; and Toyota plants in Ken-tucky and Missouri and two in California.

The Japanese also have two joint venture plants with American car manufacturers and nine research and development centers, mostly in Michigan and California.