`THE United States must continue to lead the world - it must become a great nation again,'' a senior leader of Japan's ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party said in an almost pleading tone one evening over dinner. The politician says he believes deeply in the fundamental importance of Japan's friendship with the US. Yet he also fervently defends Japan's record on trade and economic disputes with the US.
Americans don't try hard enough to sell in Japan, he regularly pronounces in meetings with American officials. He castigates American visitors, saying the US must tackle its own problems first, such as its budget deficit and its social problems.
Such assertiveness, many observers say, reflects a deepening sense of confidence and a growing feeling of nationalism in Japan. But the politician's faith in America reflects as well the paradox of Japanese power today, the continued unwillingness to move out from under the shadow of the postwar alliance with the US.
``A large majority of responsible Japanese leaders have found it virtually impossible to think beyond a world where the United States is of primary importance to Japan and where the Japan-US friendship is a major pillar of global stability,'' Takashi Inoguchi, a Tokyo University professor, wrote in an academic journal earlier this year.
Japan's emergence from the devastation of World War II to become the world's second-largest economy has led many to conclude that the nation will naturally seek an equivalent political leadership role. Some American commentators have even predicted the emergence of a ``Pax Nipponica,'' a Japan-led world order. Some see the beginning of that era already in Asia, where Japanese money, technology, and trade ties are predominant.
``Japan is becoming the core economy in Asia,'' observes Robert Sutter, an Asia specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, ``which means a relative diminishment of US influence in Asia.''
The Japanese have so far been reluctant to use their power to try to directly influence the policies of their Asian neighbors. Even in suspending aid and investment following antidemocracy crackdowns in Burma and China, Japan was following a US lead.
Still, Mr. Sutter argues, ``the weight of Japanese investment overseas and the growing dependence on the Japanese market of Asian countries is ultimately going to have political implications.''
But Americans err if they see Asia as a vacuum waiting to be filled by Japan. The greatest barrier to Japanese preeminence comes from Asians themselves, from nations such as South Korea or China and from commercial rivals such as the powerful networks of overseas Chinese businessmen that dominate business in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Southeast Asia.
Asian leaders do not question Japan's economic impact. But they reject the idea that Japan can supplant the American-led postwar order.
``Japan because of its economic power has a role to play,'' Kim Dae Jung, the leader of South Korea's largest opposition party, said this fall over breakfast in his Seoul home. ``But in other fields, in political fields, Japan lacks philosophy.''
The Korean opposition leader, like most Koreans who grew up under Japanese colonialism, speaks Japanese fluently. He was a political exile in Japan during a long career of political dissidence. And he has been a frequent critic of US foreign policy.
In Mr. Kim's view, US leadership was based on its commitment to democracy, its opposition to communism, and now on its pursuit of d'etente. The Soviet Union, too, offered the Marxist philosophy. But Japan ``has no vision for the future,'' he says, and without that, it ``cannot really lead the world.''
The Westernizing intellectuals who helped lead Japan's modernization from the mid-19th century looked to the West for their ideas. They believed they could set an example for other Asian nations whose development was stagnated by feudalism and colonialism. But that more enlightened concept rapidly degenerated into Japan's attempt to build its own Asian empire from the late 19th century through World War II.
The Japanese Empire offered its Asian subjects a Pan-Asian doctrine of racial solidarity against Western imperialism, embodied in the wartime goal of creating a ``Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.''
``Japan had a role in Asia, which was to establish the independence of Asian people from the domination of white people,'' says Seisuke Okuno, a conservative politician who served as government official during the war. Some Asian leaders found that claim credible, including the men who were leaders of independence movements in Burma, India, and Indonesia.
Such anti-Western ideas still find some echo in the ranks of the Japanese extreme right. Parliamentarian Shintaro Ishihara, who has gained notoriety for helping write a controversial tract entitled ``The Japan That Can Say `No,''' claims Japan has a special role in promoting Asian development and prosperity. ``We need Asia more than we need America,'' he provocatively writes.
But behind such rhetoric, most Asians see only Japanese racism. The Japanese have ``a complex,'' observes Bonggot Anuroj, a Japanese-speaking official of Thailand's Board of Investment. ``In culture, art, and science, they look to Europe and the US,'' she says. ``But they feel more comfortable to stay in Asia because they feel superior to other Asians.''
Many Japanese agree with that criticism. Unless Japan learns to shed its cultural insularity, Asians will not accept its leadership, says Jiro Tokuyama, head of the Center for Pacific Business Studies at Mitsui Research Institute. ``But Japanese always distinguish between `insider' and `outsider,''' he says.
Asian resistance to Japanese domination is ``natural,'' says former Foreign Minister Saburo Okita, considered a leading ``internationalist'' among the Japanese elite. He is the leading advocate of Pacific economic cooperation, which took a major step toward reality early this month when leaders of 12 Asia-Pacific nations, including the US, Japan, Korea, and the six members the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei), met in Australia.
For Asians, the most worrisome prospect is the marriage of Japan's economic strength with military power. With the US urging it to play a greater military role, Japan has been engaged in a steady buildup of its defense spending and capability. Japan's military is still relatively small, with fewer personnel than the armed forces of China, North and South Korea, and Vietnam.
``Japan should not be allowed to become a military superpower,'' says South Korean Foreign Ministry official, Ambassador Lee See-young. The US, he adds, ``should be very careful. You can ask them to share the burden, but the strategic and military role played by the US in this region should remain.
``Anyway, we do not want to be dominant in military power,'' Dr. Okita asserts. ``When we lost the war, [we understood] the future of Japan lies in economic rebuilding and technological progress.''
Japan's military role will remain limited to self-defense, as its US-imposed antiwar Constitution requires under the strategic US nuclear umbrella, Okita says.
``Now the importance of the military, globally, is coming down - even for the US and the Soviet Union,'' Okita contends. ``Economy and technology - this is a kind of enlightened self-interest. If other countries have higher income, that will benefit Japan as well.''
The test of Japan's ``enlightenment'' is how it will handle its vast wealth - the massive payments surplus accumulated through trade and overseas investments. Since the realignment of currencies in September 1985, the yen has shot up in value from around 250 yen to the dollar to a current level of 142. Japan has emerged as the world's largest creditor nation, while the US has become the largest debtor nation.
Economic writer Akira Kojima compares Japan today to the US after World War II, when America also enjoyed a huge surplus with the rest of the world. The US recycled 70 to 80 percent of the total surplus to other countries through programs such as the Marshall Plan, points out Mr. Kojima, who writes for the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's largest economic daily. ``In [the case of] Japan, just 10 percent has been recycled.''
The Japanese government is in the middle of a five-year $50 billion program to recycle funds to developing countries. Japan has taken the initiative to promote solutions to the third-world debt problem. And Japanese government foreign aid has grown to about $10 billion a year, around that of the US.
But while the US surplus was in the hands of the government, the Japanese money is largely controlled by the private sector, by Japanese industrial companies, banks, and others. They recycle the surplus in the form of overseas investment and increased imports. Such transfers are catalysts in promoting the rapid growth and industrialization of Asian nations such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Still Japanese commentators criticize the lack of direction from both the politicians and from the powerful government bureaucracy.
``While politicians are sleeping, while the bureaucrats are hesitant and trying to expand their vested interests, most of the adjustment burden comes on the shoulders of private business,'' Kojima says critically. ``What we have is not a Marshall Plan - it is a Commercial Plan.''
In the last few years, Japan has taken on a more global role, joining in defining policies on problems such as the environment or debt. While Japanese assertiveness worries some Americans, the Bush administration and its predecessor have encouraged it. Secretary of State James Baker III calls for a ``global partnership,'' exemplified by the joint US-Japan effort to aid the Philippines. More often, in practice, it means the US defines the goals, as in Eastern Europe, and Japan contributes the money.
While the Japanese seek a more equal partnership, there is little serious discussion about breaking with the US. Japan's economic involvement with the US is too large and so much of its assets are in US dollars.
``We are destined to cooperate,'' says Kojima, who describes the situation as an economic version of the nuclear warfare doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) in which neither side can afford to go to war.
At the same time, Japanese policymakers clearly envisage that if there is one area in which Japan can take the lead, it is in Asia. The promotion of a regional economic organization is evidence of that thinking.
But even here, the Japanese are reluctant to move without the support of the US.
An isolated Asian bloc, Japanese analysts agree, could only come as a desperate reaction to American and European protectionism. Only out of necessity - cut off from their markets in Europe and the US - would the Asian nations be forced to turn inward.
But except on the fringes of Japanese life, the dream of empire seems at best impractical. And at worst, this dream would inevitably be transformed into the nightmare of an unwinnable war.
``There will be no Pax Nipponica,'' the LDP leader declares.
Fifth in a five-part series. Other articles ran Nov. 6, 13, 15, and 17.