Tokyo — While hobnobbing with the superpowers, Japan has learned the hard way in recent years not to neglect its less powerful neighbors in Asia. Since Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka faced violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in several capitals in the early 1970s, successive Tokyo governments have worked hard to overcome lingering suspicion of Japan's motives and resentment of its overwhelming economic power in countries once under it militay occupation.
It is against this background that Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki makes his five members of the noncommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Breaking a tradition that has seen new Japanese prime ministers visiting the United States first, Mr. Suzuki will be seeking to demonstrate in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand that Japan is a "lasting friend" of ASEAN, interested in playing a major role in achieving regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said the visit would signify a change in Japan's position vis-a-vis the regional community from "Japan as a good partner" to "Japan walking side by wide with ASEAN."
In other words, he explained, Japan wants to stress it has no feelins of superiority toward its less economically powerful Asian neighbors -- if it might have given that impression in the past -- but seeks a relationship of "total equality."
Mr. Tanaka ran into trouble on his ASEAN tour in 1973 due to resentment in Southeast Asia at the all-too-visible Japanese economic presence, which many felt amounted to exploitation.
Japan, it was felt, was taking the region's natural resources, processing them, and selling the final products back at a vast profit.
Under government encouragement, many Japanese enterprises have subsequently set up processing plants in ASEAN nations, plowing the profits back into the local economy rather than repatraiting them to Japan. Japanese communities in the various countries have been actively encouraged to get out of their "cultural ghettoes" and migle with the local people.
Foreign Ministry officials say that, as a result of such steps, there are no major outstanding economic problems facing Prime Minister Suzuki on his tour.
ASEAN has become one of the few areas in the world to enjoy a healthy profit on trade with Japan. (In 1979 the region exported goods worth $16.3 billion while importing only $9.6 billion worth. This trend continued in 1980.)
Japanese official development assistance to ASEAN in 1979 totaled $572 million, almost 30 percent of this country's total bilateral aid.
In addition, it is committed to $1 billion is soft loans for five major ASEAN industrial projects: urea plans in Indonesia and Malaysia, a pulp and paper plant in the Philippines, a rock salt-soda ash project in Thailand, and a yet-to-be-decided project in Singapore.
Officials say Mr. Suzuki will make a fresh commitment on this aid, as well as carrying other presents to the SEAN capitals.They will include a plan for a "Suzuki fellowship" fund to help researches, a plan for a student training center in Japan, and a fund to help train engineers.
Foreign Ministry sources say Mr. Suzuki wants to give priority to agricultural cooperation, aimed at increasing food production and contributing to rural development through irrigation, environmental and sanitary improvement, electrification, and education is farming villages.
The prime minister is also expected to offer help in energy development, such as financial and technolofical support for projects to develop non-oil energy sources.
On the political front, the sources said Cambodia (Kampuchea) would figure most prominently in the top-level talks planned in all five capitals.
Japan has strongly backed and worked hard to canvass support for the ASEAN-initiated resolution, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in October, calling for an international conference to achieve a political settlement of the Cambodian conflict.
Also expected to be raised particularly in Bangkok, will be Japan's performance on Indochinese refugees.
The Foreign Ministry has been working to allay ASEAN criticism of alleged Japanese "coldheartedness" in accepting only a few hundred refugees so far for resettlement, although Japan has signaled a willingness to take 1,000.