AFTER decades of viewing the world through a telescope almost always pointed at the United States, Japan hopes to add a second lens in coming months. It will be aimed at Moscow. A Japanese desire to step outside the US shadow for once and diversify its foreign ties is becoming stronger in Tokyo. It's evident even in stores, which are selling ``Gorby dolls'' and telephone credit cards printed with the picture and signature of Mikhail Gorbachev. Last August, the government decided to de-list the Soviet Union as a ``threat.''
The Kremlin leader will visit Japan in April, the first ever to do so. The run-up to the visit rivets Tokyo's attention, more so even than the Gulf war or any of the many hot trade disputes.
Japan's biggest concern this year is how to use the visit to settle a territorial dispute left over from Yalta, sign a peace treaty, and open up to its biggest neighbor. Confident of a breakthrough, Japan has already sent a team of Japanese-language teachers to Siberia. Its reaction to the Baltic crackdowns has been mild.
Japan is irked that it has been left out in the cold as the cold war ends in Europe. Many Soviet weapons once stationed in Europe were merely moved toward Asia. The Soviets keep upgrading their Pacific fleet. China, North Korea, and Vietnam are nearly as hard-line as ever.
Mr. Gorbachev asked to visit Japan at springtime and has delighted the Japanese by requesting to see the blooms of this nation's endless number of cherry trees. He may join in the annual pleasure-trip of the Japanese as they view the pink-white pedals drifting to the ground. That a foreign leader would appreciate such ``uniqueness'' of the Japanese spirit is considered crucial to good relations.
He also has asked to visit Hiroshima, victim and symbol of the horrors of atomic war. Both Japan and the Soviet Union are using the US bombing of Hiroshima to proclaim moral superiority as peace-lovers. Some Japanese accounts of the events leading up to the bombing are so distorted that many young people actually think World War II started on Aug. 6, 1945.
That aside, the inescapable symbolism of the visit will be that the leader of the country that lost the cold war will be coming to the country that lost World War II, and all this just months before the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The two wars, hot and cold, that most shaped the 20th century will be highlighted in this historic visit. And Japan, as the country that was able to make a fresh start, will link up with a country trying to make a fresh start.
The US is making it easy for Japan to seek a Soviet linkup. Washington's anger at the lack of Japanese human aid in the Gulf war and an increasingly protectionist tone in US trade policy has shaken the very roots of US-Japanese relations and put an urgency on a multidirectional foreign policy.
Besides looking to Moscow, Japan is quietly probing how to put together the diverse nations of Asia into some sort of security or economic organization. The move comes as a self-defense against the emerging economic blocs in Europe and the Americas. But various proposals for an Asian bloc, including one from Europe-leaning Moscow, have drawn little interest so far.
The first and easier step may be to form sub-Asian blocs, such as in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, Japanese officials suggest. Japan, of course, would be a member of both. The Soviets would be a member of only one.