Tokyo — Passing through Tokyo on an Asian tour the other day, Vice-President George Bush seemed intent on playing down differences between the United States and Japan.
He conceded the threat of mounting protectionist pressures in the US. But he rejected the idea that the two countries are on a ''collision course'' over trade.
Both were committed to the goals of fair and free trade, and ''we cannot allow trade disagreements to dominate our dialogue,'' he told a news conference.
It may be the right time for such soothing words.
Many Japanese seem gripped with the idea of a real crisis in relations between this country and its postwar mentor and closest ally.
In a recent magazine article carrying the opinions of public figures, there was some sympathy for the American position. But, especially on trade, there were strong complaints, including suggestions Americans were guilty of racism by reviving the old ''yellow peril'' bogey.
However, the gap between the two countries may be less of a problem than the internal differences growing here.
On trade, the business and farming communities are engaged in mutual recriminations. On both trade and defense there are sharp divisions within Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
During talks with the prime minister, Mr. Bush was briefed on the program Japan will unveil next month to open its market wider to foreign, and in particular, American goods. Washington is particularly eager to increase farm exports to Japan. But one US source said the plan, as outlined, ''offered no agricultural initiatives of any note.''
The government, in fact, is having trouble resolving internal differences, and the public unveiling of the plan has been put back from May 7 to May 15 at least.
Meanwhile, Keidanren, the powerful association of leading business organizations, has decided the government's cautious step-by-step approach is not easing foreign criticism of Japanese trade practices.
As a result, it is planning to release a statement this week calling for drastic liberalization, including immediate or at least phased removal of all import quotas, including those on 22 agricultural products.
Keidanren officials say the politicization of trade issues has become so dangerous that free trade and free enterprise could be driven to ''the very brink of collapse'' - something that would hurt Japan more than most.
Officials admit, however, that advance news of the planned public statement was not well received. Agricultural organizations, whisky distillers, and confectionery makers, for example, were ''lining up with their protest letters'' at Keidanren headquarters last week, one source said.
Some 8,000 farmers poured through Tokyo streets the day Mr. Bush arrived demanding that the government not ''destroy Japanese agriculture'' through import liberalization of items like beef and oranges. The farmers' chief spokesman, Shizuma Iwanomochi, emotionally pledged to ''defend Japanese agriculture to the death.''
The root cause of the current trade friction, he said, ''lies in the weakening of America's international competitiveness and its failure at economic management.'' He lambasted Japan's industrial leaders for ''behaving like economic animals,'' exporting manufactured goods without moderation. If this export torrent could be halted, Japan wouldn't face demands for agricultural import liberalization, he said.
With the Liberal Democrats so heavily dependent on the rural vote to stay in power, two separate party committees in recent days have produced resolutions urging the government not to commit political suicide.
Tokyo's strategy on the farm issue now appears to be negotiations with Washington on a product-by-product basis. This would take much time and would lessen the public impact if the Japanese side is forced to make concessions.
The defense problem is no easier to resolve.
Within the LDP are all shades of opinion, from moderates willing to continue slow expansion within constitutional bounds staying in step with public opinion to right-wingers ready to accept a militarily powerful Japan backed by a strong defense industry, and even nuclear weapons.
The Defense Agency is ready to listen to the American siren call, but restrained by a more cautious Prime Minister Suzuki. Washington wants this country to defend its own sea lanes to 1,000 miles from the coast, freeing the US Seventh Fleet for more Indian ocean patrol duties.
Last May, many Americans may have thought they had a commitment along these lines from Prime Minister Suzuki, when he met President Reagan. Recently he has strongly denied this.
The issue is now back in the melting pot, with the ''comprehensive security affairs ministerial council'' to begin this summer looking at the subject from ''all possible angles,'' according to Suzuki's explanation in the Diet (parliament).
Vice-President Bush told newsmen defense was one subject he had not touched during his brief Tokyo visit.