In hell's dining room, the table is laden with sumptuous delicacies. But the chopsticks provided are so long that diners cannot put anything in their mouths, no matter how hard they try. They are doomed to starve while the table groans with food.

The chopsticks are just as long in heaven's dining room, too, but all diners are happy and enjoying their feast. Why? Because everyone feeds the person sitting across the table.

This is a well-known cautionary tale, the moral of which is that it is wrong to think only about one's own interest. In a sense, this could also apply to international trade.

Trading is not an altruistic pursuit, to be sure. Ever since the rise of imperialism, trading has resulted in exploitation and plundering at times. That is precisely why rules have been set to protect the interests of all parties.

But as if to undo all such efforts, the United States has arbitrarily declared additional tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Wherever their countries of origin, steel imports will be subject to a 25 percent tariff and 10 percent for aluminum.

The stated purpose of this move is to protect U.S. products. President Donald Trump tweeted, “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

Let us not get too used to Trump's typically coarse language.

The U.S. automotive industry is not happy, as increased tariffs spell higher materials costs. Consumers will be forced to pay more, and the impact on the overall economy may prove negative.

Even the White House must be aware of this risk. But economic nationalism has apparently prevailed.

In retaliation, the European Union has threatened to slap tariffs on iconic U.S. products, including Harley-Davidsons and Levi jeans. But Trump has escalated his rhetoric by talking about taxing European-made cars.

To go back to the tale of hell's dining room, it now looks as if the diners are about to start stabbing one another with the long chopsticks.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 6

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.