'Number one' Japan: timid superpower searching for a new role

Japan, an economic giant with no nuclear arsenal and a low profile in diplomacy, is trying to find its role in the world's political arena.

The question being asked here: Can a nation remain a political lightweight if it has the world's third largest economy and may forge ahead of the United States in gross national product by the end of this century.

Knowledgeable Japanese are ambivalent when asked where they see Japan on the world political map today. They want their voices to be heard more loudly in world councils but shy away from those global responsibilities that would thrust them more aggressively toward center stage.

Prof. Sadako Ogata of Sophia University, Japan's first woman diplomat and a former member of the Japanese mission to the United Nations, goes so far as to say: ''Japan wants to be in the major league, but doesn't want to play major league. Perhaps what we want is the prestige, not the power.''

Yoshio Murakami, a former Washington-based journalist who broke the Lockheed bribery scandal and is now deputy foreign news editor of the respected Asahi Shimbun, concedes that too big a global role would obligate Japan to contribute more financially.

He suspects the attitude of many Japanese is: ''Let's not pay. Let's not assume a large role. Let's make money. Let's not join peacekeeping. Why should we try to snatch hot chestnuts from the fire and burn ourselves?''

The impression from talking to numerous Japanese is that they would rather Japan did not make an overt grab for world leadership. They fear it would arouse sleeping sentiment, especially within Asia, against Japanese imperialism.

However, if Japan rises naturally and unobtrusively to the top by virtue of excelling in a broad range of international endeavors, it would not shun its newly enhanced global role.

Many Japanese feel their country, the third-largest contributor to the United Nations budget, ought to be one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. (The big five are the US, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France.) But Japan remains outside this ''club'' while Britain and France, whose combined GNP falls well below that of Japan, remain inside.

At the same time Japanese have great difficulty in projecting a future role for themselves without being painfully reminded of their recent past. World War II and the Japanese Constitution that followed effectively bar Japan from becoming either a nuclear power or a great military power.

A Japanese diplomat in the United States says: ''We are very low keyed because we were a defeated nation. Friends say: 'You are a world power. Take your world responsibilities.' In fact, you'll find us very diffident and cautious.''

Aggravating the World War II memory is the recent textbook controversy seen here not so much as a rise in militarism but a rise in Japanese nationalism. The textbook controversy was precipitated by revised accounts of recent Japanese history that emphasize the glory and accomplishments of the former Empire.

As US ambassador Mike Mansfield expressed it during an exchange of views with visiting US journalists: ''I had thought that the memories of the Pacific war had just about diminished until the textbook controversy had come to the front. Neighbors of Japan have anything but a positive image of Japan. Bitter memories still remain. They've (the Japanese) have got a long way to go to rectify that situation.''

Polls carried out in other countries over a period of years by the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association reveal a strong antipathy, if not hostility, toward the Japanese. Japanese businessmen are summed up in a word - ''arrogant.''

According to an official of the association: ''Some Asians think the Japanese businessman is no different from the Japanese soldier. All he has done is to change his uniform.''

Yet what often passes for aggressive salesmanship the world over, arousing strong protectionist sentiments against the invasion of Japanese goods, is explained and rationalized within Japan as an imperative need to export.

"We are dependent on foreign trade for our survival. It's a matter of life and death,'' says Masaya Miyoshi, managing director of Keidanren, the powerful organization that represents big Japanese business. He was alluding to Japan's Achilles' heel - its almost total dependence as a resource-dry country on importing vast quantities of raw materials.

What the lack of Nobel scientists and top-notch academic students points up, say Japanese professors, is a country too bent on consumerism; too preoccupied with the more lucrative applied sciences rather with the more vigorous academic disciplines of basic or pure sciences.

In short, Japan is seen as ''too success oriented.'' So much so that Dr. Nagai sees a sharp conflict building up in Japan over its system of values. ''Right now I think we are in a very chaotic situation.''

Moreover, much of Japan's material success is based on its extraordinary ability to learn, adapt, and improve. Many in Japan are proud of their country's economic and technological successes and are flattered by books such as Ezra Vogel's ''Japan as Number One.'' They feel Japan has climbed to the top rung of the international ladder. For some Japanese herein lies the danger for Japan.

''Japanese businessman come back to Tokyo feeling no one in the business world can compete with them,'' says a Japanese journalist in Tokyo.

In other words, having absorbed voraciously from the West and mastered its techniques, there are doubts now as to where Japan goes next if there are no further foreign models to emulate. Many Americans, however, would insist that Japanese still have some way to go, for instance, in some areas of high technology. Computer software is one example.

Neverthless, the challenge to Japan to go it alone is underscored by Prof. Tokue Shibata of Tokyo's Economics University. Professor Shibata is an international expert on urban affairs who is currently giving a series of weekly talks on educational television on the future of urban Japan.

''All during our . . . history we have tried to import advanced culture from outside. But now we have no country to run to. Somehow we have to develop our own technology, not somebody else's. Whether Japan can do that . . . I'm very pessimistic.''

Professor Shibata was reflecting a pervasive feeling that Japan lacks the originality and creativity to be innovative.

The result is that when Japanese think of the concept of internationalism, they are concerned not so much with what they can contribute to international understanding but with what they can absorb from elsewhere.

Other Japanese vigorously refute their country's copycat image by pointing out that Japan was so devastated by World War II that the only way to catch up was to copy the example of others. Now that they have drawn alongside the major industrial powers, they anticipate Japan will have an opportunity to show its ingenuity.

Despite these appearances of superiority, sometimes cited as arrogance, Japanese are acutely aware of their limitations. The 1973 oil shokku, for example, brought home to this tiny, overcrowded island how vulnerable their new found economic power was.

And while many Japanese may feel they are No. 1 they still turn to Brookes Shields to sell designer jeans, to Paul Newman to promote a certain brand of coffee, and to tall Western models to display Japanese-designed clothes. Even plastic litter bags attached to the backs of bus seats depict children with round Western eyes.

''Things Western are chic,'' explained a Western-educated Japanese, ''and Japanese people don't feel comfortable modeling. They don't feel they have the right shapes.''

The result is a Japan wrestling with two kinds of identities, sometimes Western, sometimes Japanese, sometimes aggressively superior, sometimes vulnerably inferior.

The Japanese, says Dr. Masaru Ogawa of the American-Japan Society, are leading a very double life of baseball and sumo, hamburger and sushi, kabuki and Shakespeare, modern Western and traditional Japanese architecture. ''And its not without its problems,'' he says.

''A definite search is going on in the Japanese as to where we came from and where we are going.''

One difficulty is that, in looking ahead, the Japanese people are unsure just what sort of role they will have in the community of nations.

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