Shultz's Japanese-style politics

A Japanese leader who acts like an American. An American secretary of state who acts like a Japanese. Together they are reinvigorating the US-Japan relationship.

When Japan's Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited the United States recently, he impressed American officials as being a man with whom they could deal. Direct and forceful, Nakasone is not one of Japan's traditionally cautious politicians. Through several early actions, mostly of a symbolic nature, Mr. Nakasone showed that he is willing to brave criticism at home to improve relations abroad.

The new American secretary of state, George Shultz, came to office last year with a strong, ready-made interest in Japan. Unlike a number of his predecessors , who took years to develop a genuine interest in Japan, Mr. Shultz has been here on business before and has a grasp of how the powerful Japanese economy works.

Now in Japan for two days of talks, Shultz is a cautious man. Like a Japanese politician, he builds a consensus before he moves. He is likely to make a major effort to understand the Japanese point of view. Gone is the tendency to take the Japanese for granted.

Although two men obviously do not make all the decisions, Nakasone boldness and Shultz caution could prove to be a powerful combination. The problem for the moment may be that Nakasone has not yet consolidated his hold on power.

In a nation where pacifism is still a powerful force, Nakasone's recent statements about the need to make Japan an ''unsinkable aircraft carrier'' to defend against Soviet bombers stirred press criticism. Another danger for Nakasone is that through his forceful statements he has raised expectations in the US that cannot be fulfilled.

''The basic problem,'' a Japanese defense analyst said, ''is that Japanese decisionmaking is always from the bottom up. It's based on consensus building. Nakasone turned things around. He's working from top to bottom.''

As a result, some of Nakasone's decisions have not been well received either by the bureaucrats or by his colleagues in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

For Nakasone, the bureacucracy more than anything else could make it hard to deliver on his commitments. Japanese leaders are not supposed to push the bureaucrats under them as hard as do their counterparts in the West. Nakasone had to fight the Finance Ministry to secure a relatively modest increase in Japan's defense budget over what seemed probable before he came to office. The Finance Ministry is known for its veto power.

What is certain for now is that after producing a series of what looked like faceless prime ministers, Japan has brought a new prime minister to power who is not wedded to the status quo. Nakasone has already broken the taboo that denied past prime ministers the ability to speak openly about the need to defend Japan.

Some thought his openness alone might bring him down. But the Soviet Union was so heavy-handed in its response to his remarks about defense that it played into his hands. In effect, the Soviet Union rescued Nakasone from further criticism by using its press to threaten Japan with the possibility of nuclear holocaust.

There was no immediate progress reported on economic matters during Secretary Shultz's visit. But Shultz has clearly considered one idea that could do much to ease the US-Japan trade imbalance.

Japan, short of energy, would like to buy Alaskan oil and natural gas. But such shipments are under a legislative ban. The ban is supported by American maritime unions which do not want to see the oil shipped in foreign vessels.

Shultz told reporters accompanying him that lifting the ban would involve considerable negotiation with the Congress.

An end to this ban might do more than any other single action to reduce the US trade deficit with Japan, possibly by several billion dollars. In return for Alaskan oil, Japanese officials are apparently ready to consider a further opening of Japanese markets. Whatever the trade-off turned out to be, it might dramatically improve the atmosphere.

Shultz seems to lean in favor of the sale to Japan of Alaskan oil. But he is not likely to push hard on this issue until he can achieve a consensus among key bureaucrats both here and at home.

As an expert on Japan, Nathaniel B. Thayer of The Johns Hopkins University, sees it, Shultz is ''a superb Japanese politician.'' ''He moves by consensus and he believes that economics are the key,'' Thayer said recently.

Meanwhile, both American and Japanese officials have placed great emphasis during the Shultz visit on the need to guard against a US-Soviet arms control agreement that might simply result in a shift of Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles from Europe to Soviet Asia.

After meeting with Shultz on Jan. 31, Japan's foreign minister, Shintaro Abe, declared that Japan could not agree to any arms-control pact that allowed such a West-to-East shift of missiles or the continued stationing of Soviet SS-20s in Asia.

Mr. Shultz was reported to have responded to this unusually specific Japanese statement with what some considered to be almost Japanese vagueness. He said that in arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, the US intended to observe its ''global responsibilities.''

Translated into plain English, this seemed to mean that the US would take Japanese needs into account, and the Japanese pronounced themselves satisfied. In his new career as a Japanese politician, Mr. Shultz was deemed a success.

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