Bangkok — Not since World War II has Thailand seen so many Japanese in its land. They are the No. 1 tourists, No. 1 investors, No. 1 traders, and No. 1 aid givers.
In a way, Japan's commercialism differs little from its former militarism -- the Thais know the Japanese will always need to control foreign resources for their security.
Japan's dominance in the Thai economy -- one third of all foreign investments -- helped spark student protests in the mid-1970s, and last November caused Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda to go to Tokyo and ask for a better deal.
Even though Thailand imports all its oil, mainly from Saudi Arabia, over half of its normal trade deficit is with Japan -- from which it gets not a vial of oil.
Especially since the United States left Vietnam, Japan has outpaced the investment of Western companies.
The estimated $1.4 billion trade deficit with Japan last year may not come down any time soon, since Thailand knows its own manufactured goods do not sell in Japan.
What Prime Minister Prem wants, however, is for Japanese companies to drop restrictions on their Thai joint-venture contracts. These clauses usually limit the territory or market for the company, or hinder the transfer of technology to keep Thai exports from competing with Japan's. They also slow Thailand's drive toward industrialization.
Alas, half the battle lies in Thailand's own Board of Investment (BOI), whose officials rejected new screening tests for Japanese-Thai joint ventures (over 350 already exist). ''BOI believes new rules would lead to more corruption. The Japanese are very willing to pay for convenience,'' says Dr. Narongchai Akrasenee, an aide to Prime Minister Prem.
The test may lie in Japan's newest investments -- developing Thailand's petrochemical industry, using natural gas as a feed stock. Japanese financing has been arranged for a gas separator, and other industries, such as plastics, will certainly be favored by the Land of the Rising Sun.