``A Japan that contributes to the world.'' Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita came to Washington to persuade Americans that this is the new face of his country, its new mission in the global community.
``In a very real sense,'' he told the National Press Club yesterday, ``we have undertaken to make Japan a `nation contributing more to the world.' We are embarking on this course upon our own will and initiative, and not merely responding to the requests of others.''
With President Reagan himself and with key government departments, such as State and the Pentagon, the diminutive premier was largely successful. He soon got on a jovial ``Ron-Noboru'' basis with his host. ``The chemistry was right,'' said a Japanese official in a tone of vast relief.
But on Capitol Hill, and in departments handling the nitty gritty of trade relations - Commerce, Agriculture, the Special Trade Representative - skepticism, even cynicism, were the prevailing reactions.
``If the trade deficit [with Japan] continues to grow - if we see it march beyond $60 billion - something will happen,'' said House Majority Leader Tom Foley, (D) of Washington.
Like all heads of government, Takeshita was basically talking to two audiences during his visit. One was American - President Reagan, Congress, the media. Its twin preoccupations about Japan concern security and trade.
The other was Japanese - and when Takeshita spoke of contributing to the world it was this audience he had primarily in mind. These are his voters - office workers worried about housing or astronomical land prices; small manufacturers confronting life-or-death decisions because of the soaring yen, farmers grimly determined to keep rice imports at bay. These are the people he must persuade that sacrifices are essential if Japan is to help manage the global economy upon which its own prosperity depends.
To many outside observers, Japan's responsibilities as the world's second richest nation and its largest creditor are obvious. Spend more, save less, promote imports, deemphasize exports, recycle your wealth to help the developing nations. Many Japanese agree with all or parts of these demands.
``Restructuring the economy'' has become a buzzword in Tokyo, and it was one of the promises Takeshita made to Reagan on this trip. The words are easy to say, wrenchingly difficult to perform in a self-centered society inured to thrift and hard work. Changing directions needs time, and from the US perspective in an election year, time is what the Japanese do not have.
Takeshita's US audience was disappointed because he did not bring the spectacular specific commitments - such as opening Japan's market to US beef or citrus, or letting US contractors operate inside Japan's construction industry - that would have affected congressional perceptions.
So, while the Japanese talked of bringing down interest rates, or improving market access for agricultural and other products, or allowing American firms to bid on Japanese public construction projects, progress in any one of these areas was insufficient to generate a real change in the atmosphere of US-Japan relations.
But Takeshita's success at the White House is a political plus for him in Japan. It shows him triumphing in an area where, as a politician's politician, he has always been held weak before - namely, international politics, and it may give him the moral authority he needs to give substance to his slogan of a Japan that contributes to the world.