TOKYO'S pledge yesterday to slash Japan's huge surplus should be viewed in its historical context: Japan has been saying the same thing for years while doing exactly the opposite. For almost a decade, under pressure from the United States and other trading partners, Japan has been formulating plans to streamline procedures, eliminate red tape, encourage imports and ensure that exports are fairly priced. Among the innovative ideas was an appeal by former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to Japanese consumers to buy such foreign goods as waffle irons. Waffle is, indeed, appropriate in the context of Japanese pledges to cut the trade surplus. Last year, the overall surplus reached US$121 billion, while the surplus with the US widened to a record US$66 billion. Currency dealers took only a matter of minutes to dissect the package of measures announced yesterday and found there was nothing new. The Japanese genius for packaging and presentation failed to impress traders who had the temerity to ask: where's the beef? Unfortunately for the Japanese Government, markets are less easily fooled than American trade negotiators. The cut in the discount rate appears unlikely to stimulate the domestic economy at a time when the weak dollar means other countries find Japanese goods too expensive. The latest measures would only have a limited impact if they were implemented strenuously and expeditiously, two qualities for which Japanese bureaucrats are not generally known. Yet there is hope that Tokyo is beginning to think a little seriously about reform. The strength of the yen weakens Japan's trading position, threatens the economy's long-awaited recovery and alienates trading partners. Prevarication has been effective in tactical terms but it hardly represents a sound long-term strategy. For years, officials suggested that if foreigners understood the complexities of Japanese culture, they would recognise that bringing about change in such a conservative society took time. But no one needs to study sumo-wrestling or origami to recognise that dumping is dumping and trade barriers are trade barriers. Japan will not be entirely trusted as a trading partner until it opens the door to imports. During the recent Kobe earthquake, diligent officials even tried to keep out relief supplies that had been donated from overseas. Indeed, the confused official reaction to the earthquake has its echoes in the response to the currency crisis: the government is doing too little, too late and the bureaucracy is more likely to slow than speed implementation of what is on offer.