Japan's challenge: finding its niche in global community

The crisis of understanding between Japan and the United States has two aspects: the immediate and the long-term.

Immediately, Japan must take steps to meet a chorus of world demands to open its markets further to foreign goods.

But both Japan and its critics know that such steps will not measurably affect Japan's trade surplus.

In the long term, this means changes in established patterns of thought and the way in which Japanese society is organized. The immediate steps demanded of Japan are difficult enough. Long-term changes could cause wrenching dislocations and intense domestic conflict.

For instance, during former Trade Minister Masumi Esaki's just-concluded tour of Western Europe, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher indirectly suggested changes in Japan's unwieldy, immensely complicated distribution system.

But, as one high official exploded, ''millions of elderly, modest-income people make their living in this system. How can you expect them to give way to super-efficient supermarkets just like that!''

The deadline for steps to be taken immediately is the Paris summit coming up in early June. Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki will meet with President Reagan and leaders of five top Western nations. These summits have become an annual affair.

In recent years Japan seems to have been mostly on the defensive, trying to prevent other participants from ganging up on it and arguing that it remains a loyal, committed member of the Western alliance and of the global free-trade system.

Foreign Minister Yoshio Sakurauchi has returned from his meetings in Washington with President Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., and top congressmen. He was given the message: Come up with ''as many measures as possible'' to open Japan's market to American and other foreign goods before the Paris summit.

Mr. Sakurauchi specifically mentioned 14 items, including farm products, cigarettes, semiconductors, plywood, and soda ash. All are politically sensitive.

Although Mr. Sakurauchi said he did not commit Tokyo to any deadline during his Washington visit, he hoped that market-opening measures could be taken before Vice-President George Bush visits Tokyo during an Asian tour at the end of April.

Strong political leadership will be required to push through meaningful measures. Japan has already been opening its market over the past decade, slowly and often reluctantly. Those items that remain under quota or other restrictions do so because they have been the politically most difficult to free -- for instance, beef or citrus fruits.

In this area, Prime Minister Suzuki has not shown noticeable leadership in the past. Political analysts here note that Mr. Suzuki made his way to the top as a fashioner of domestic compromises wreathed in vague general phrases. Such phrases are no longer adequate in the highly charged atmosphere of Japan's trade disputes with the US, Western Europe, and other nations.

Political leadership of the highest order is called for in the future. Many Japanese see special-interest groups in the US and elsewhere taking advantage of the present situation. They say the groups are using the perceived closed nature of the Japanese market to push forward their own grievances.

No Japanese leader, however internationally minded, is going to be able to meet all these demands. Editorial after editorial in newspapers here has called for a leader who will speak out clearly to say what Japan can and cannot do.

Despite differences in culture and social organization, Japan and the US share common values that become apparent to any reporter who has served in a communist or authoritarian country. They share a security relationship that is the cornerstone of American defense policy in Asia.

In moments of frustration, some Japanese businessmen talk of what might happen if Japan's dynamic economic engine were to be harnessed to the communist rather than the free enterprise system. But they know that in reality Japan has no choice. It is a committed member of the West.

Can this commitment be articulated convincingly to Japan's partners at a time when Japan seems to be doing a lot better than the rest of the world during the present economic gloom? Can Japan's leaders meet domestic political pressure while moving swiftly to meet international differences?

It is a stiff challenge. The hesitation of these generally cautious and circumspect leaders is understandable. But the survival of the world's free trading system, from which Japan itself has derived so many benefits, may be at stake.

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