Japan is becoming convinced it has a role to play in Africa. And many African leaders are beginning to agree. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, on a recent official visit to Tokyo, said he felt Japan had a keen interest in the North-South dialouge and was ready to cooperate with developing countries in tackling global poverty.
Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda last year saw Japan's economic strength as a great potential help to Africa.
Japan has the further advantage of being largely free of any particular political ideology, as well as cultural or ethnic ties to the United States , the former European colonial powers, or the communist bloc.
But there is a long way to go before good intentions become a coherent foreign policy.
Japan really become interested in Africa only in the 1970s. When Toshio Kimura, then foreign minister, visited several black states in 1974, he was the first ranking Japanese government official to set foot on the continent.
Until the middle of last year, there was not even a separate African affairs bureau in the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Africa was handled by the Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau and usually got short shrift because the Middle East is such a troubled area. Last July, however, the ministry formed two separate divisions, one dealing with West Africa, and the other with East and southern Africa.
When then Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda toured five black states south of the Sahara in August 1979, a newspaper editorial noted: "In the past, Japanese diplomacy toward Africa was chiefly based on three factors: trade, the desire for African minerals, and a wish to influence African bloc voting at the United Nations (especially when Japan was seeking a Security Council seat)."
Japan's official development assistance to sub-Saharan African has gone from contributed over $200 million so far to the African Development Fund.
President Nyerere went home with Japanese promise to extend some $40 million in development and commodity loans, as well as a commitment to continue and expand both economic and technical assistance on a long-term basis.
He also got the Japanese to issue a condemnation of South Africa's apartheid policy and make a commitment to play whatever role it could in a peaceful solution of the Namibian (South-West African) problem.
But the Japanese have built up a trade with South Africa amounting to more than $2 billion a year -- dwarfing Japanese trade with all of black Africa.
Japan is now South Africa's fourth-largest trading partner, an extremely important buyer of its coal, iron ore, chrome, manganese, platinum, and uranium.
In return, there are about 50 manufacturing plants in South Africa, ostensibly locally owned, that import Japanese parts for local assembly (e.g., Honda and Datsun cars).
The Tokyo government bans direct investment, but local antiapartheid groups continually charge that this is being skirted by Japanese businessmen who set up dummy companies in third countries.
Foreign Ministry officials agree it would be desirable to seek trading partners in other parts of Africa instead. But, at the same time, it would be hard to switch to alternative sources of raw materials in a hurry.
Zambian President Kaunda, however, has warned the Japanese that "South Africa has reached boiling point, and when a revolution takes place, all business there will go up in flames . . . yours included."
Foreign Ministry sources point to signs of change. Japan was repeatedly accused of violating UN economic sanctions against white-ruled Rhodesia, but it is offering Zimbabwe extensive aid and prefe rential tariffs.