Japan hears Americans, particularly US congressmen, harping on Japan's free ride on America's defense investment. That charge flashed like lightning through all Japan last November when North Carolina Congressman Stephen Neal proposed that Washington tax 2 percent of Japan's GNP to help pay the Pentagon's bills. It recurs constantly, as is now the case in Congressman Stephen Solarz's hearings on Capitol Hill.
But Japan hears other than American voices. For three days in Singapore I sat in on an off-the-record international seminar concerned with security. I was in the company of Japanese friends and together we heard there that:
* Wall Street's high interest rates are, right now, a greater threat to security in East Asia than is the USSR, China, or Vietnam.
* Tension between Washington and Tokyo over economic issues frightens everyone -- especially those in the ''little Tokyos'' out there who fear that, if Tokyo is punished for its successes, they could be next.
* Japan can go ahead to improve qualitatively its ''denial'' combat capabilities in Northeast Asia, but Japan should not take on ''regional'' military responsibilities.
* East Asia distrusts Washington's implacable anti-Soviet intentions, with some East Asians regarding Moscow as a desirable counterweight to Peking, and all fearing the consequences of making Moscow feel trapped.
I traveled north from Singapore to Tokyo, listening to talk in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Seoul. In Manila a former foreign minister feared that Washington's anti-Sovietism could distract attention from dangers far greater than Moscow was ever likely to present. In Singapore, a minister of defense said that for Japan to rearm could terrify everyone, even Washington, before long: an open and healthy Japanese economy was, from a security standpoint, far more critical than Japan's possession of arms. In Kuala Lumpur, I was told that ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) could, on its own , cope with Vietnam, provided ASEAN's economic links with Japan were strong. In Bangkok, crime and the easing of tensions between city and countryside was its leadership's principal preoccupation, for which Japanese credits and markets were vitally necessary. Seoul, fearing a trigger-happy Pyongyang, wanted Japanese credits but never Japanese weapons or manpower.
So, as I approached Tokyo, I wondered how Japan might take certain large and concrete actions which might end American talk about ''free ride,'' which could gain respect and gratitude from Japan's East Asian neighbors, and would be compatible with political realities in Japan where a no-war prohibition in the Constitution remains popular.
I came up with three ideas.
First, Japan should buy, and use its computer and electronic capabilities to improve upon, two packages of AWACS: The initial price tag might be something like $16 billion. Thus Japan could make its own threat analysis in Northeast Asia, and thereafter shape the precise composition of needed ''denial forces.''
Second, Japan should offer to pay costs of creating a nonmilitary ASEAN coast guard, if asked by ASEAN to do so. This apparatus would perform missions of mercy and supervision at sea and, in addition, collect for use by all the countries of Southeast Asia, i.e. including Vietnam, information on all movements at sea and in the air, normal and unusual, so as to forestall, if possible, any threat to sea lanes upon which Japan is mortally dependent -- and others too.
Third, Japan should allot .05 percent of its GNP -- $5 billion a year -- to be administered by the dormant oil facility of the World Bank. This would help, over time, less developed countries hardest hit by OPEC's high oil prices (glut or no glut), by recession in Western Europe and North America, and by declining foreign aid. It might diminish, eventually, Japan's dependence on a Middle East where war, regardless of the winner, could be a chilling threat to Japan's survival.
My Japanese friends gave me a surprise. They told me that the proposals to spend money for AWACS and coast guard sounded attractive but the idea of a .05 percent increase in development aid was less so. Critical energy deficits in the 1990s and after will be, I heard, met by nuclear fusion and not by more oil from present -- or future developing country -- providers.
''Comprehensive security'' is, for Japan, a sound and necessary concept, and Tokyo will not depart very far from the logic of its operational requirements. But it is fairly clear that Japan is only at the beginning of translating ''comprehensive security'' into practical terms. Nevertheless, in key respects the guidelines for Japan's behavior are predictable:
Keep defense spending low, under something like 2 percent of GNP. Manage an inflation-free domestic economy able to trade and invest worldwide, competitively, and able to adjust to economic and political disasters abroad. Increase foreign aid but eschew shotgun handouts. Rely on R&D (research and development) to meet energy requirements of the future. Rely on R&D to exploit all possible advanced technology potentials for military intelligence and for defense. Be smart in achieving the high combat readiness needed for effective, low cost, surgically selective containment of verifiable Soviet threats. Avoid cornering the enemy. Be tough, but talk politely. Recognize that nuclear warmaking anywhere by anyone could end everything for everybody.
Making obvious allowances for differences in situation and tradition, Washington itself might profit from starting to adopt a few of these guidelines so as to refute a charge often heard in East Asia that it is Washington which wants a ''free ride'' -- drawing rights on Tokyo to cover costs of its own financial and strategic profligacy.