US, Japan: Times Change

Japan seeks greater influence in international forums, decisions; but the process will be deliberate and must involve more self-reflection

AS a further reminder of how much the United States-Japanese relationship is changing, celebrations will be held in Japan in mid-May to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japanese control. Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa is also expected to visit Washington prior to this July's G-7 meeting in Munich.

It is hoped these events will refocus attention on the positive aspects of the relationship and stimulate interest again in the touted "global partnership." But with elections in both countries this year, it is unlikely much progress will be made in overcoming perceptions of animosity.

Recent tensions have arisen from a sense of uncertainty over the US and Japanese roles in the world of the 1990s. Now that there is no longer a credible military threat to Japan, managing the alliance will be more difficult. Permanent American troops, 75 percent stationed on Okinawa, will eventually be removed from Japan. Competition for resources and market share and the equitable distribution of economic gain will be the main challenges facing policymakers.

Disparaging comments about trends in American society by Japanese politicians have led to perceptions in the US that Japan, with its financial strength, now feels superior to its strongest ally. This may be more accurately interpreted as a reflection of Japan's emergence from a long-standing feeling of inferiority in its relations with the US.

The Japanese are understandably proud of their economic and social accomplishments since World War II. At the same time, they are also aware of their image as a nation plagued by political scandals that has yet to find its diplomatic niche.

Japan has often felt isolated from the world community and is a nation with a long history of playing catch-up. It now finds that a larger stake and greater influence in global matters is accompanied by unprecedented interest in Japan's affairs. And many complain that Japan has not lived up to its international responsibilities. While Japan has been unable to successfully present itself to the world as a nation actively engaged, it is no doubt inevitable that the Japanese will, in time, show leadership a nd initiatives that demonstrate their belief in a shared destiny for all nations.

In many ways, Japan's domestic political structure has stifled its ability to offer leadership internationally. The Japanese system does not formulate quick or dynamic foreign policy. Previously, Japanese leaders have relied on gaiatsu, or external pressure, to unify moves on contentious trade and foreign- policy issues. But there is no such pressure from the US or elsewhere to force domestic political reform.

It is unlikely that we'll see Japan put forth major international initiatives until such reform is carried out. There will, however, continue to be incremental changes in policy that will gradually involve Japan more fully in the world's affairs. One example is Tokyo's June conference on Cambodia. This is a small, yet significant move at a time when legislation that would allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations remains stalled in the Diet.

Japan has earned the right to an expanded decisionmaking role in international forums that is commensurate with its financial contributions. We should support such a position. A more active and independent Japanese foreign policy is an inevitable and natural outcome of political and economic maturity. But only Japan, through its own democratic political process, can determine what its function in the world should be.

With European Community integration, the US-Canada free-trade agreement, and the prospect of a North American free-trade zone, there is renewed interest in Japan and throughout Asia in an Asian-Pacific regional strategy. It is uncertain what form it would take or even if the US would be included. But certainly, with the yen becoming the dominant currency in Asia, Japan would be the centerpiece.

Japan could facilitate its larger regional role and lessen distrust among Asians by honestly confronting its wartime past. Relations with South Korea have been strained of late because of Japan's unwillingness to recognize the claims of the so-called "comfort women."

Furthermore, Japan's ability to criticize nations like China for human rights violations is hampered by its refusal to acknowledge its past.

What will the Japanese do with a greater say in world affairs? The Japanese clearly have economic strength and will no doubt continue to use this brawn to seek political power in the world. But Japan will have to present a more benevolent image of itself to the global community, identifying values and interests that it cherishes.

Japan's new policy on official development assistance signifies a move in this direction. Tokyo now requires aid recipients to have acceptable policies on arms trading, military expenditure, human rights, and democratization.

However, Tokyo's continued assistance to Burma, despite that country's human rights violations and suppression of democratic movements, suggests that this new policy, like much of Japan's foreign activities, will be implemented by degrees.

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