Japan has made a geopolitical discovery - the existence of Israel. When Foreign Minister Sosuke Uno visits Israel in late June, it will be the first time any Japanese Cabinet minister has set foot there. But, in apparent continuing deference to Arab sensitivities, the Japanese government is playing down the significance of the trip.
For Japan, the flag has followed trade. After a decade of stagnation, trade between Japan and Israel more than doubled from less than $400 million in 1985 to $880 million last year, and is growing by more than 20 percent so far this year.
This change is especially notable for Japan, a country whose companies have been conspicuous in their observance of the Arab economic boycott of Israel.
Economic reality, rather than ideological conviction, has driven Japan's strongly pro-Arab policy. Japanese dependence on Middle Eastern oil has only slightly diminished since the 1970s. The 300 million Arabs, a Foreign Ministry official explained, represent a far larger market than tiny Israel. ``When you sell, the population has to be counted.''
Japanese and Israeli officials cite several factors behind this quiet warming of relations. The oil glut has diminished the power which Arab oil producers have over their Japanese consumers. The administration of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita is eager to project a more assertive foreign policy, and particularly to play a role in helping to settle regional conflicts.
The Japanese are also hoping to deflect American criticism of their pro-Arab stance. Members of the Congress and the administration have publicly rebuked Japanese observance of the boycott. American Jewish organizations have expressed concern about a spate of anti-Semitic books published since last year, a few of them best-sellers. Such books blame Jews for a variety of evils from the high yen to the Chernobyl accident.
Officially, the Foreign Ministry official declared, ``It is our independent policy, although we have to [take into] account so many things.'' Israeli diplomats here also de-emphasize the American element behind the policy. Still, one diplomat acknowledges, ``We can't deny that it is in the back of their minds. They need the American market and the American [security] umbrella.''
Still, the Japanese aren't giving Mr. Uno's trip much publicity. The trip also includes in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and a possible meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. During the visit to Israel, the official explained, Uno ``will recognize, by visiting the so-called occupied territories, the current situation of the Palestinians.''
Arab governments have protested the visit. ``Of course Arab people resent the idea that for the first time a Japanese foreign minister visits Israel,'' says Toshio Yamaguchi, director-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's International Bureau. Arabs have conveyed dismay over the visit's timing, given the suppression of the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories.
But the uprising allows Japan to portray the visit as a part of an effort to promote ``peaceful coexistence'' between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. ``From our standpoint the timing couldn't be better,'' Mr. Yamaguchi said.
``The momentum of the peace process has to be kept,'' the Foreign Ministry official commented. ``This is high time for Japan to play that role.''
The government's still cautious stance is reflected in its insistence that the growth of Israel-Japan trade is a product of ``purely economic'' factors. It is the improvement of economic conditions in Israel and increased Japanese demand for imports, officials say, that is encouraging trade. As for the boycott, they say the government has no control over the behavior of Japanese firms.
What is undeniable is the upsurge in economic contacts. The Israeli Embassy here has carried a successful strategy of cultivating business ties with smaller industries outside of Tokyo. Two weeks ago a delegation of Israeli businessmen, representing mainly high-technology and manufacturing industries, visited Japan.
For the first time, the powerful big business federation, Keidanren, hosted a seminar by the Israeli group. The turnout, about 110 Japanese businessmen including the largest trading companies who have not had ties with Israel to date, surprised even Keidanren officials.
The Japanese expressed interest, a Keidanren spokesman said, in Israeli high technology such as computer software and electronics. According to delegation member Avi Zeevi, Israeli companies are starting to break into the market in Japan. While trade is still dominated by diamonds, high-tech manufactured products are a rapidly growing proportion of Israel's exports to Japan.
Meanwhile, more Japanese are visiting Israel. Since January, 16 delegations, from businessmen to musicians, have toured Israel, compared to only a few last year.