THERE'S an ironic twist to this weekend's Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Naples, Italy. For the first time, Russian President Boris Yeltsin will be a full participant, at least in the discussions on the second day. And for the first time, questions focus on Japan, not merely because of its huge current account surplus, but because of its Socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama.
By this time, the new prime minister's beetling eyebrows, his unaffected country accent, and his modest upbringing as the son of a fisherman in the southern island of Kyushu have been widely reported. The Japanese public has been charmed by his utter lack of pomposity.
Mr. Murayama is the first Socialist to become prime minister of Japan since 1948. And Japan's Socialists, at least in terms of long-held policies, are not like European social democrats.
Historically, the Japanese Socialists have opposed the US-Japan security treaty. They have advocated unarmed neutrality, and were close to Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang.
Murayama says that his party is changing and so are his former opponents, the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Socialists have just formed a coalition. He will be able to make this point directly to President Clinton when they have their first tete-a-tete today.
The irony of this summit is that Mr. Yeltsin, representing the former archenemy of the West, is an honored participant, while Japan is facing questions about how loyal a Western ally it can be with a prime minister whose own party has been so anti-Western. It's the reverse of the questions being asked in Italy, where the prime minister's coalition includes neofascists.
Murayama has soothed the Japanese public by saying that the Socialists are changing, just as his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are changing. It remains to be seen whether the same reassurances will work with Japan's Western partners in Naples.
The G-7 includes the presidents or prime ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US, plus the president of the European Union's Commission in Brussels. There are all kinds of summits, but the G-7 is the only annual summit to include Japan.
In fact, one of the reasons for its establishment (first as the G-5 - Canada and Italy were added later) in 1975 was to bring Japan into top-level, world-ranging economic discussions - in those days, how to weather the oil crisis. The Japanese were reluctant to take part in purely political discussions and used their constitutional ban on going to war as an excuse to avoid any security commitment.
Gradually they became more forthcoming regarding political talks. At the United Nations they are participating to a limited degree in peacekeeping operations. But here again, Japan's Socialists have opposed participation.
So the question at Naples is whether Murayama, buttressed by his Liberal Democrat partner and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, can convince his colleagues that Japan will be positively and actively involved, not only in the economic aspects of the discussions, but in political and security-related areas as well. The biggest question will relate to Japan's stance on North Korea - whether, if Pyongyang does not resolve Western suspicions of its nuclear ambitions, Japan will go along with some form of sanctions, as it has promised.
In fact, in one respect Murayama may be more forthcoming than the previous coalition government. The Socialists stand strongly for cutting taxes without any immediate increase in sales taxes, which now stand at a uniform 3 percent. Hopefully that will raise consumer spending and suck in more imports. Their goal is to win voters in a preelection period.
But Washington and Japan's other summit partners may be pleased, since all of them want the Japanese people to spend more money on other countries' goods.