A scrutable baseball fan leads Japan

When Yasuhiro Nakasone took up the prime ministership of Japan, he said he felt like a pitcher coming up to the mound with no outs and all bases loaded.

In terms of personality, he is one of the most attractive figures since World War II to occupy the gloomy Frank Lloyd Wright-ish prime minister's residence.

Tall for a Japanese, handsome and trim, he is a spellbinding orator. With Westerners, he does not play the inscrutable Japanese, but is forthright and frank. A nationalist who staunchly upholds the alliance with the United States, he has frequently said he wants his country to be strong and respected in the councils of the world.

But Mr. Nakasone comes to office at a particularly difficult time for his country, both at home and abroad. Japan has coped with the effects of the oil crisis better than most of its partners. But government deficits are reaching enormous proportions, and Mr. Nakasone has pledged both to reduce these deficits and to simplify and reorganize the government's administrative structure. It is difficult to see how he can do this, however, without unpopular tax increases or inflation-spurring government spending to lift the economy out of recession.

In foreign policy, the security link with the US can no longer be taken for granted, although it remains the bedrock of Japan's own security. Seldom has there been such a generalized sourness in Japanese-American relations as there is today.

The two major American complaints are a trade balance in Japan's favor that is expected to reach $20 billion this year and Japan's paltry defense spending of about $12 billion a year - less than 1 percent of the gross national product.

Mr. Nakasone has scheduled a trip to Washington early next year for heart-to-heart talks with President Reagan and a determined attempt to give a fresh impetus to Japanese-American relations.

But trade and defense are highly controversial issues in Japan, with powerful , entrenched interests opposing anything that smacks of concessions to Washington. It will take time for Mr. Nakasone to show progress on either or both issues - and from the viewpoint both of the Reagan administration and of the US Congress time is what Japan is running out of.

So it is apt that Mr. Nakasone should compare himself to a hard-pressed pitcher. He has no magic tricks up his sleeve.

But he can at least rescue Japanese-American relations from the dangerous drift they suffered during the latter months of his predecessor Zenko Suzuki's incumbency, when the major Japanese assumption seemed to be that if only the American economy could get started on the road to recovery, all would be well.

Mr. Nakasone has a competent and politically strong foreign minister, Shintaro Abe, and a forthright trade minister, Sadanori Yamanaka, who is a close political ally. As minister in charge of the Defense Agency, Mr. Nakasone has selected a promising younger politician, Kazuho Tanikawa, who spent a year at Harvard University's graduate school before turning to politics.

Mr. Nakasone spent World War II in the Navy. His younger brother, a kamikaze pilot, was killed during that war. He is often called a hawk on defense matters. Indeed it was Mr. Nakasone who, during a year and a half as defense minister, published Japan's first defense white paper. He also changed the insignia of the nation's self-defense force from the dove of peace to the cherry blossom, symbol of the samurai warriors of old.

But he sometimes cites his own wartime memories, including the loss of his brother, to pledge that never again should the Japanese, or any other people, have to experience death and destruction. In his first press conference after becoming prime minister, he did not flatly rule out the possibility of revising the Constitution so as to permit Japan to have full-fledged armed forces.

Mr. Nakasone is probably on the same wave length as Mr. Reagan when he preaches the dangers of Soviet expansionism and the threat to Japan posed by Soviet forces on the small islands they occupy within sight of Hokkaido, Japan's northern island.

Atmospherics alone cannot improve Japanese-American ties. But something has to be done to get this crucial relationship back on the right track, and a series of long, informal chats with Mr. Reagan and principal members of his Cabinet may be the way to get started on this essential process.

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