Tokyo — The blunt Japanese newspaper editorial left no room for doubt: "We must stand up to the Americans." It was referring to two specific areas of current American pressure: for an accelerated Japanese military buildup, and for a reduction in Japanese car exports to the United States.
But in many forms -- although often more diplomatically put -- the sentiment of "standing up to the Americans" is becoming a significant Japanese refrain.
There have been frequent differences between the two countries in the postwar era, and the current upheavals have to be put into context.
Tokyo and Washington still have wide-ranging common iterests. But in the past year or so there has been a growing feeling that they are no longer "two hearts beating as one." This applies not only to bilateral relations, but also to perceptions of wider internation issues.
Some commentators feel this is not necessarily bad. Rather, it is seen as an encouraging portent of a transformation in attitudes -- from the old system of Japanese dependence on America to a more mature, interdependent relationship.
Hitoshi Hanai, a professor of international politics, is among those who feel this change is inevitable, because the US is no longer the strong, reliable father-type it used to be.
"The decline of the US (against rising Soviet power) would be a major crisis for Japan. But even if this doesn't take place, the old one-sided Japan-US relationship should not be allowed to continue. . . . A more mutual interdependent style is needed."
Privately, some Tokyo government officials feel the Americans are being contradictory: They want Japan to assume a larger international role befitting its economic strength, but become upset when this self-assertiveness is displayed against US interests.
There is unhappiness on both sides, with American feelings best summed up in one word: betrayal.
Iran has contributed to the strain. When the US Embassy in Tehran was seized last November, Washington looked for strong support from Japan including participation in an economic boycott. Instead, Japanese companies rushed in to buy all available Iranian oil at inflated prices.
When the US protested bitterly at this insensitivity, the Japanese temporarily backed off, but eventually quietly bought the oil at a lower price. That heightened suspicions first, that Japan thinks only in terms of business advantage, and secondly, that it easily submits to pressure.
President Carter's latest move in breaking relations with Iran presents a new dilemma for Japan. Government officials have publickly expressed their "understanding" of the move, without actually supporting it. Privately they hope to be able to go on receiving Iranian oil, which makes up 10 percent of their current needs $25 percent in the Shah's day).
This attitude is criticized by Nobuhiko Ushiba, former ambassador to Washington and more recently special trade representative, who says "Americans cannot understand Japan's attitude when we are a country that depends on international law and order for our protection."
The same ambivalent attitude prevails over the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. The government is still trying to find a formula to condemn the Russians, thus pleasing Washington, without adding a further layer of ice to Tokyo's frosty relations with Moscow.
There are delicate fishing quota talks under way. Japanese businessmen want to continue talks on investment in Siberian natural resources development.
These considerations tend to lead to demands that the government assert its independence and, in the words of one source, "show the Americans they can no longer get their way through pressure like they did during the occupation."
American sources express frustration that what is often a mere expressed "hope" for a concession usually gets blown up in Japan into a "dire threat."
The present difficulties are regarded in some quarters as similar to those between a father and son. Diplomat Hiyoshi Kobayashi says: "After the war, the Americans assumed the role of father, providing defeated Japan with all its basic needs.
"The Americans still seem to want to presume on those acts of generosity and are naturally hurt now that the son has grown into an adult, and just like so many spolt postwar Japanese children, shows no gratitude. That is what I think Americans mean by 'betrayal.'"
It is this problem that bedevils bilateral relations. There is, for example, the apparent US "demand" that Japanese government virtually force Toyota and Nissan to build auto manufacturing plants in America.
A leading Tokyo daily newspaper commented: "It seems there is a preconception in the US that Japan, if blackmailed, would put up virtually no defense and easily yield to any demand.
"It is regrettable indeed that past episodes have proved this theory. In order not to repeat this and to teach the US the lesson that threats no longer are effective in solving problems between the two countries, we must not compromise our position."
Similar sentiments surface on defense. Many influential Japanese now agree their coutry should spend more on defense. But, like Fumihiko Togo, the recently retired ambassador to Washington, they feel this should be done "because it is in Japan's best interests, not simply because America wills it."
Many Japanese are skeptical of America's military commitment to their country. They feel US interest is concentrated more on the Middle East and Western Europe at present.
One senior politician confided: "It has actually become necessary for Japan to develop its defense capability independently because it has become impossible for the US to spare its power for our security."
US and Japanese officials feel there are no easy answers any more. The relationship between the two countries inevitably has to change with the times.
Although there are strong voices demanding more Japanese "independence " the government is committed to continued close ties with Washington, as long as the US realizes "junior" is a big boy now and has a mind of his own.
But internationally minded men like Nobuhiko Ushiba stress the Japenese also have the responsibility to show more maturity -- less hair-trigger emotionalism -- and to demonstrate that this country does have (as many outsiders have doubted) fixed diplomatic and political principles that can be relied on.
As a first step, it is suggested Prime minister Ohira and President Carter at their Washington summit this month should concentrate on repairing the damage to mutual trust that prevailed in simpler times before emotionalism on both sides creates a wider breach.