CHARGED with the mission of promoting trade with Japan and achieving balanced global trade, the Japanese External Trade Organisation (JETRO) has set up 31 offices at home and 77 more in 57 locations around the world. For the Hong Kong office, established three years ago, realising the goal is not an easy one. Japan's trade surplus with the territory almost doubled last year, compared with 1991, to $118 billion, and, in the first nine months of this year, it stood at $96 billion. Hiroshi Fujiwara, deputy director general of JETRO, Hong Kong, said the problem was that there was a clear difference in trade structures. ''It is difficult to narrow the gap because Hong Kong is mostly importing high value-added capital goods from Japan, while exporting consumer products,'' he said. The territory's biggest export over the last few years has been textiles and clothing, although last year this sector registered a drop of 14 per cent compared with 1991. The second largest export was office equipment and components, up 39 per cent last year on the previous year, followed by jewellery, watches, fresh and frozen fish, tobacco, and non-metal products. Exports to Japan, which have shown the sharpest increase from Hong Kong, have been plastic products, audio-video equipment, and electronic components. Accounting for the biggest re-export items from the territory last year were clothing, footwear, games and toys. Last year, imports from Japan in all the biggest sectors showed increases compared with 1991, ranging from three per cent in industrial machines, to 35 per cent in telecommunications - the leading segment - to 126 per cent in motor vehicles. Mr Fujiwara said Japan had liberalised its market recently, and that price and quality were the keys to success there. ''The strong yen has boosted exports from Hong Kong,'' he said. ''And the cheap labour costs in southern China mean products re-exported through the territory from there are also competitive. ''However, while the slump in Japan means consumers are carefully looking at the price of items, quality is still an important factor.'' The image of products from Hong Kong was changing, he said, and they were acquiring a reputation for quality, especially in fashion. ''There is great creativity here [in Hong Kong],'' he said. ''I foresee the image changing more and more.'' After more than 30 years of existence, JETRO has also undergone a change of image. ''Just over a decade ago, we were engaged in the export promotion of Japanese products to overseas markets,'' Mr Fujiwara said. ''But, since 1980, we have changed to import promotion. This was brought about by the widening trade imbalances between Japan and other countries. ''Our office includes staff from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, as investment promotion is closely related to government industrial policies. ''We capitalise on the function of MITI. Our role is also to promote exchanges, at local, as well as government, level. For this reason, we have five prefectural representatives here. Investment from, and to, these areas is handled by these staff.'' Another function of increasing importance in JETRO is investment promotion - particularly in Hong Kong. ''Many Japanese firms are considering investing in the territory and southern China,'' he said. ''That's why we have to inform them of the overall investment climate. We obtain information from the Department of Industry, the Trade Development Council, and the Trade Department.'' In addition, JETRO contacted Japanese companies in the area and asked them what problems they had encountered in setting up their business. Since its establishment in Hong Kong, JETRO had experienced a growing interest in southern China. ''Many Japanese companies are looking for cheap labour costs, and a good investment site in Asia,'' said Mr Fujiwara. ''Southern China is one of the possibilities. Manufacturing companies in particular have transferred from Hong Kong to across the border. One example is Seiko-Epson. ''It has between 400 and 500 staff in the territory, but, in Shenzhen, it has a workforce of about 5,000.'' He said the outlook for the area was good, regardless of the breakdown in Sino-British talks, since it was a large market with a high standard of living. ''Despite the political uncertainty, many business people are bullish about the opportunities in Hong Kong and China,'' he said. ''It is clear the territory will remain a business hub for the region after 1997.''