Japan has been playing a quiet role in the Middle East for a number of years to try to free American hostages, the United States' veteran ambassador to Japan told reporters here yesterday. ``On their own initiative, they have been trying to do what they can to bring about the release of American hostages,'' said Ambassador Mike Mansfield.
``They have been doing so for the past two years, to my knowledge, on their own.''
Ambassador Mansfield's comments were in response to recent reports in the American press that Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone sent a special envoy to Iran in August 1985 in an effort to free US hostages in Lebanon.
The mediation, the report alleged, was carried out at the specific request of President Reagan. But Mr. Nakasone denied the allegation, insisting that Japan acted completely on its own initiative.
Mansfield said that he had no specific knowledge of a phone call that, the report alleged, was made by Mr. Reagan to Prime Minister Nakasone in July 1985 - requesting Japan's intervention.
``I think you can take Nakasone's statement at face value,'' said Mansfield, a former Democratic Senate majority leader from Montana, who has been at his present post for almost 10 years. Mansfield's is the longest tenure of any US ambassador to Japan.
Japan's efforts on behalf of US hostages, the US ambassador said, are a product of its unique position in that turbulent part of the world. As a major economic power without military might, Japan has kept friendly relations with nations that are themselves enemies.
Japan, Mansfield said, is ``the only major nation of the world having diplomatic relations with Tehran and Baghdad, as well as Damascus,'' referring to the capitals of warring Iran and Iraq, as well as Syria.
This unique situation ``has put [the Japanese] in a position where they, if anybody, could achieve something in the way of a favorable result.''
Japanese attempts to use such access go back to the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Japan has also tried to mediate an end to the war in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Iraq.
The 83-year-old statesman echoed concerns the Japanese government has expressed in the past few days, saying he was concerned that the Iran scandal could weaken the ability of the Reagan administration to hold back the tide of American trade protectionism in the face of a massive US deficit.
``We can't afford a crippled presidency,'' he said. ``I think we ought to give him what support we can to carry on for the next two years.''
Last year, an omnibus trade bill was passed in the US House of Representatives but was killed in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate.
In his conversation with reporters, Mansfield credited two people with ``holding the line'' against American restraints on free trade: President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz.
But during the next session of Congress, he said, the administration may have to compromise on a bipartisan trade bill.
The Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives and that of the Senate are committed to passage of trade legislation, Mansfield said.
With the US-Japan trade deficit expected to reach $57 billion to $58 billion dollars this year, he told American reporters here, ``I will not be in the least surprised'' if a trade bill passes.