A group of U.S. electronics companies have taken their fight to Japan. Talk about protectionism has dominated the headlines lately, but now many companies in the industry are following a two-prong strategy on Japanese soil: lower trade barriers to American goods, and talk, talk, talk to ease tensions.

"We're now operating in a free-trade mode," says Ralph J. Thomson, a senior vice-president of the American Electronics Association (AEA), a trade group in Palo Alto, Calif. "Instead of asking for trade protection in Washington, we decided to open up the lines of communication."

Since the beginning of the year, the AEA has won some important battles in Japan. It helped stall action on software copyright laws that would have kept U.S. companies out of the country for at least another decade, and it helped convince the Japanese to open up their national telecommunications network to foreign suppliers.

To keep goodwill flowing, the AEA also opened a permanent office in Tokyo in April, available to all American electronics companies interested in exploiting Japanese markets. The Tokyo staff helps both Japanese and American companies scramble through the export bureaucracy, and acts as a "Marrying Sam" for U.S.-Japanese joint ventures.

The Tokyo office is a milestone. Partially funded by a two-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, it marks the first time the program has worked with industry to establish a foreign trade office. "Early signs are that there will be great cooperation from both sides," says Lewis Podolske, technical assistance specialist for the program.