Japan has long been criticized for being an economic giant but a political dwarf. But there are signs of change. Concluding his first foreign trip as prime minister -- a grand tour of the five-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Zenko Suzuki enunciated in Bangkok this week his foreign policy "doctrine" that Japan was ready to fulfill its obligations to play a political role "commensurate with its status in the international community."
But he said it was a mistake to expect this to be military. Rather, Japan should draw on its economic might (gross national product and volume of foreign trade accounting for 10 percent of the world total) to promote international peace and develop the world economy.
Elaborating on this, senior Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo said Japan is already starting to take the initiative in issues that do not directly concern it and that are not connected with its economic interests.
One official outlined these goals for 1981:
* Relations with the United States are the basis for Japan's foreign policy, so strong ties with the new Reagan administration will be essential. Prime Minister Suzuki is proposing a summit with President Reagan in May.
* Japan as a member of the Western alliance should strengthen cooperation with the US and Western European bloc. A decline in American economic and military strength caused a decline in its world influence, so that Japan's economic strength should now be used to complement that of the US.
This theme is a particular favorite of Chief Cabinet Secretary Kiichi Miyazawa, a potential prime minister and a leading light in the Trilateral Commission, David Rockefeller's think tank of business and financial people from Japan, the US, and Western Europe.
* Japan must also develop a vigorous foreign policy towards Southeast Asia, China, and the Soviet Union.
Foreign Ministry officials believe Japan has a key role to play in building up ASEAN and China economically so that they will remain firmly in "the Western camp."
* There is also a belief that the Tokyo government should use its trump cards -- its economic power, and expansion of its influence with China and Southeast Asia -- in bargaining with the Soviet Union for the return of Soviet-held islands north of Hokkaido. It's an issue left over from World War II, an issue the Soviets have long insisted is closed.
Prime Minister Suzuki has already turned down overtures from Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, who has suggested the two countries seek improvement of relations by separating political and economic issues, with emphasis on the latter.
But the essence of Japan's new foreign policy is to see political and economic issues as inseparable.
As Deputy Foreign Minister Kiyoaki Kikuchi puts it, "In the early postwar years, when Japanese were bent on mere survival, it suited this country's purpose to place its economic interest first."
As the most significant breakthrough so far in Japanese diplomacy, Mr. Kikuchi cites the request last year from the ASEAN bloc for Japan to undertake a leading lobbying role for moves to retain Cambodia's United Nations seat for the ousted Pol Pot regime.