U.S. automakers were among the most avid cheerleaders when the Clinton Administration in mid-June began buying up Japanese yen in currency markets. It's an economic fact of life that the weaker the yen, the more expensive imported goods become if they are built in nations with stronger currencies.

WAW asked General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. for their sales in Japan through the first five months of 1998 and 1997. Ford only had 1998 sales data through April.

Indeed, they are all suffering with year-to-date declines ranging from 27.4% for GM to 41.1% for Ford. While the deepening recession in Japan is hitting Japanese automakers too, total new vehicle sales for Japan's domestic automakers through April were down a more modest 18.2%. Only Hino, a truck maker; Nissan Diesel, the ailing truck division Nissan is in the process of selling to Daimler-Benz AG; and Isuzu, which also is more of a truck manufacturer, reported sales declines of more than 30%.

Saturn Corp. President Donald Hudler struggles to put a positive spin on that company's rugged baptism in the Japanese market. Indeed, Saturn sold 105 cars in May, up from 68 in the year-earlier month. But since its early 1997 debut in Japan, Saturn has only sold 1,200 there.

"That's five times greater than Toyota sold in their first year in the United States," Mr. Hudler says.

In Chrysler's case there is another factor that has hit its Japanese sales even harder than the yen. At the beginnning of 1998 Chrysler severed its relationship with Honda under which the Japanese company sold Jeep Cherokees and Wranglers through a limited number of its own showrooms. Chrysler is in the process of building up its own retail network, which now covers about 120 showrooms. Models Chrysler offers in Japan include the Neon, Voyager minivan, Dodge Stratus, Jeep Wrangler, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.