RELATIONS between Japan and the United States are not very warm these days. Come to think of it, neither are Japan's relations with just about every other country. Last week Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tried his utmost to spread charm and wheedle economic aid out of Tokyo, only to find politicians and businessmen alike insistent that no purse-strings would be loosened until Moscow agreed to return four northern islands seized at the end of World War II.
A couple of weeks before that, President Bush received his good friend Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu in California - a friend who had pledged ``global partnership'' with the US. Tokyo had pledged $9 billion to the Gulf war early this year, but when it came time to pay up, the ups and downs of the yen-dollar exchange rate had reduced the amount by half a billion dollars. The president tried to get his friend to make good on his original pledge, but Kaifu demurred, saying Japan's parliament had appropriate d the amount in yen.
Overall, however, the Japanese have not been stingy. A US official calculates that during the past year and a half, Japan has allocated about $30 billion for various international causes. Half of this sum has gone to the Gulf and Gulf-related needs, but the rest is a grab-bag of help to countries and regions important to the West, and particularly to the US - all the way from Nicaragua and the Caribbean to Eastern Europe and the Philippines.
Next week, Japan's defense minister will be in Washington, trying to win appreciation for the fact that, nine months after a US request, Japan is sending minesweepers to the Persian Gulf to participate in the international effort to clear shipping channels of the debris of war.
Japanese aid also is going to Kurdish refugees. The amount is being worked out with an eye on American and European contributions, so that Japan's share will be seen as appropriate.
Why, with all these sums spent or about to be spent, isn't Japan more loved, not just in the US, but around the globe? ``You have no friends,'' former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to tell the Japanese on his visits to Tokyo, well before the Gulf crisis.
JAPAN'S upstart wealth could be one reason. The newly rich are seldom popular. Nor are bankers, though everyone needs them. The Japanese themselves sometimes ascribe their not being appreciated to Western racism. These offshore Asians are the first non-Western nation to join the club of the world's richest nations - not just by having money, as the Saudis and Kuwaitis do, but by painstakingly acquiring the know-how to create wealth.
In spite of devastating defeat and the American tutelage that followed it, the Japanese are still suspected of largely bypassing Western values such as freedom, democracy, or individuality, while appropriating the science and technology made possible by these values. Most Japanese indignantly reject such accusations, and look to racial jealousy for the explanation.
If it was just a question of race, however, these offshore Asians should be popular with non-whites. They are not. In Thailand, in the Philippines, in Malaysia, the image of the ``ugly Japanese'' persists. China welcomes Tokyo's loans, but wastes no opportunity to tell the Japanese that wartime atrocities like the ``rape of Nanking'' have not been forgotten.
So are the Japanese in a no-win situation? I fear they are, as long as the government and the people think that the major solution to any international problem is either to give money or to withhold it. Gorbachev's visit was a case in point. Tokyo's demand for the return of the four islands is longstanding and just, but when even the samurai code justifies sending salt to enemies in need, should the Soviet president have been sent home empty-handed?
The Japanese salesman, or manufacturer, or banker, is a familiar sight even in remote corners of the world. Everyone knows the Japanese are hard workers, that they do not begrudge sweat on behalf of themselves, their companies, or their nation. But the world rarely sees that sweat poured by doctors, or nurses, or teachers, or relief workers, to say nothing of soldiers for peace. Until it does, the Japanese may be feared. They will not be loved.