AFTER a year of turbulent politics at home and a near-collision with Washington over trade, Japan is spreading its diplomatic wings. What may be a record number of top leaders have scattered to the ends of the globe over this holiday week in Japan, more confident than in recent months to define a new role for Asia's wealthiest nation. At least eight Cabinet members and senior politicians are on the road, from New Zealand to Yugoslavia.
All's politically quiet on the home front, says Taizo Watanabe, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, and that has allowed a spring exodus of high government officials during what is termed ``Golden Week.''
Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, whose political status has become more secure, is on a week-long swing through south and southeast Asia through May 6.
Japan's war legacy still dogs its relations with Asian neighbors, so Mr. Kaifu told the Indian parliament Monday that his country ``has opted never again to become a military power.'' However, Kaifu wants Japan to ``play a positive role by putting to effective use its economic and technological capabilities.''
Out of all Japanese foreign aid, about 30 percent goes to Southeast Asia and 20 percent to south Asia, with the most money directed to Indonesia and India.
Finding new ties within Asia has become a top priority for Japan as its sees itself potentially blocked from the emerging economic unions in the European Community and in the Canada-United States free-trade pact.
Proposals to create a ``yen bloc'' of Asian nations relying more on the Japan's currency than the US dollar have not gone very far. Japan still largely follows the US foreign policy in Asia, most notably toward China.
Pressure is building within Japan for a renewal of economic ties with China. So far, says Michael Armacost, US ambassador to Japan, Tokyo and Washington have had ``good cooperation'' in coordinating their policy toward Beijing after last June's Tiananmen Square massacre.
A top Japanese political leader, Michio Watanabe, is telling the Chinese on his 10-day trip that political stability must still be proven inside China. Beijing wants Japan to unfreeze a promised $5 billion loan program.
Japan's militarist past most influences ties with its former colony, South Korea. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama visited Seoul earlier this week to try to iron out major differences over official treatment of Korean residents living in Japan.
The issue, which hinges on whether such residents should be fingerprinted for security reasons, has cast a shadow over the visit of Korean President Roh Tae Woo in May or June. Japan may be preparing to express regret publicly for its half-century occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Mr. Nakayama then went on to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, in hopes of ensuring that Japan has a role in shaping changes in Eastern Europe, Foreign Ministry officials say. Large aid packages have already been pledged to Poland and Hungary.
One rather bold diplomatic initiative is Japan's planned hosting of the next set of talks to resolve the long stalemate over Cambodia, scheduled in early June in Tokyo. Mr. Kaifu stopped in Bangkok on his trip to firm up the negotiations between contending Khmer factions.
Much of Japan's diplomatic activity in Asia focuses on opening doors for next year's travel plans of the country's new emperor. Since he does not share his father's taint from World War II, Emperor Akihito may be more welcome in the region's capitals. India, for one, extended a formal invitation to him this week.
Left out in the cold on Japan's Asian offensive is the Soviet Union, which holds four islands claimed by the Japanese. Moscow tried to recast the issue last week when visiting Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky offered a joint program of environmental tests on the islands.
``Their fate should be the same as the fate of the Berlin Wall,'' Mr. Petrovsky said.
But Japan is reluctant to provide any sort of de facto recognition of the Soviet claim. Moscow appears angry that the US sees the dispute as an East-West issue, not a bilateral one.